I love a good thriller and I especially love one with a fascinating and complicated main character who I know is going to return in future adventures. So, when Hope Dellon, of St. Martin’s Press, who is the editor of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, mentioned author Becky Masterman’s Brigid Quinn series, it was only a matter of minutes before I put in a reserve request at my local library. Once gain, Hope Dellon has led me to a heroine who is startlingly and marvelously human, flawed, and skillfully written.
Rage Against The Dying (Brigid Quinn #1), Becky Masterman, Hardcover, 307pp, March 2013, Minotaur Books
Brigid Quinn is a 59 year old, ex-FBI agent, newlywed, who hasn’t been completely honest with her ex-priest husband about her past. She gets drawn into a case seemingly by accident and circumstance, only, not so much; turns out she was targeted because of her involvement in a past search for a serial killer who may or may not just have been captured and the danger and the secrets become more towering with every page turned in this debut thriller.
First of all, I’m all in for protagonists who defy some of the -isms of this world. Brigid Quinn is of a certain age (right near mine) and gender rare to main characters, and even rarer, allowed agency and power, not used as a prop or victimized.
Second; the plot and pacing of this novel is breakneck. It moves. It’s a one-sitting sort of read because you’ll want to keep going, so invested do you become in what will happen to Brigid Quinn and what sort of victory or defeat will be the result of her split-second and not always measured reactions and responses to events.
Third; either my reading of thrillers and serial killer fiction (or, perhaps, today’s politics) have numbed me to the horrors written about in these novels, or, Becky Masterman manages to evoke the degenerate nature of the crimes without rubber-necking over the gore and grossness. I appreciate that, as, some thrillers seem to be trying to out-shock with vomitous depravity, so nasty it makes me stop reading.
Fourth – and most important; the writing is excellent, the character development skillful and riveting, and the author thanked her editor, Hope Dellon, and her agent, and that is enough for me to know I’m dealing with a writer who I would like in real life, so it gives me pleasure to read them.
The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne, Hardcover, 320pp, June 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Sometimes having to use a rating system which allows only five stars — no fractions, and no categories as in: A number of stars for authorial style and skill; A number of stars for content; A number of stars for packaging; And a number of stars for personal preference/peccadillo — is frustrating; this is one of those times.
So, I’m going to use categories to help resolve the disaccord between my heart and my head on this one.
Authorial Styles and Skill: 4 Stars
There is no question that Karen Dionne accomplishes the goal of good thriller construction in this compulsively paced novel with its piecemeal reveal, past/present, psychological and imminent physical threat, powerful and interesting central characters. The voice of Helena Pelletier, the title character, is strong and deepens and grows as the story jumps from her present and her past, a past where she was born in captivity to a mother who’d been kidnapped as a child, raped, and tortured into pretending to be a wife in a wilderness where there were no other people save the sadistic, sociopathic, pedophile who enslaved her. The sense of Helena’s awareness grows as she does, and, too, it evolves in the present as she tells the story of her childhood, twenty years later when her monster of a father has escaped from prison and she is certain he is coming for her. The conflict between being, living and using the parts of herself shaped by the man who raped her mother and sired Helena, and acknowledging and coping with the reality that he is a complete and utter beast, is a terrifically constructed journey for which Karen Dionne deserves all the kudos. Our repulsion builds as Helena’s does, and the last third of the book one is tempted to skip pages, skim paragraphs, and hurry hurry hurry to its finish, hoping for — well, whatever it is the particular reader will hope for. Which brings me to —
Content: 3 Stars
The subject matter of this novel is certainly a legitimate story/set-up worth exploring about the discovery of self, the ability to survive unspeakable trauma, the cost of such trauma, and a larger metaphorical commentary on what the havoc that is wrought by an alpha-male, misogynist culture where sociopaths in power terrorize their victims — i.e. tr*mp and his gop cohorts, these white-cis-hetero men motivated by a hunger for control, full of hatred for and fear of all others not them. That said, it’s almost too much. It’s both too frightening and, somehow, demeaning, as in, this is too horrifying a possibility to be made fiction and so reading it seems like rubber-necking at a fatal accident where one can do nothing but watch, which one ought not.
Packaging: 3 Stars
Attractive cover design; front blurbed by Lee Child, back blurbed by 8 who’s who of thriller and Oprah Book Club authors including Karin Slaughter and Jacquelyn Mitchard. The typesetting is easy to read, pages nicely spaced, quality binding. I’d have given it another star if there hadn’t been SO MUCH in italics. The whole first page — an intro to the Hans Christian Andersen, whose tale of the same name is that on which the novel is based — is in italics. And every time we get more of the Andersen tale, more italics. To me, italics say DON’T READ ME — SKIP AHEAD.
Personal Preference/Peccadilloes: 2 Stars (SPOILER ALERT/THIS PARAGRAPH)
I can’t watch Law & Order: SVU, or movies in which children are terrorized, or read about graphic acts of violence, and this book had plenty of all the things that make me feel icky. If you want to tell me stories about vampires or fantasy tales which could never possibly happen, okay, but if you’re telling me a story that is possible in the real world in which I live, I am easily turned off by evil and cruelty. I have gotten markedly more sensitive as I’ve aged and as the world has gotten meaner, so, maybe I ought to stop reading crime fiction and thrillers entirely. Stick with British cozies. We’ll see.
And, finally, the very last section of the novel, during which daughter and criminal father struggle for victory over one another, is a bit heavy-handed on metaphor.
Hmm, those do average out to 3 stars. Maybe only having 5 stars isn’t so bad after all.
Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew J. Sullivan, Hardcover, 336pp, June 2017, Scribner
Set a novel in a bookstore, people it with book-loving characters, and chances are I will decide it’s a must-read for me. The premise, the cover, the beginning of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore set a tone not unlike one of the series of cozies set in indie bookstores peopled by quirky characters with slightly mysterious and/or troubled pasts, who are suspects in and solvers of a death in their community, and, all too often, there is also a cat.
On the plus side: no cat here. On the minus: not a cozy and the intriguing set-up and idiosyncratic characters never quite fulfill their promise in this well-written but frustrating debut novel which feels more like what started as a brilliant outline of great idea but was published too early, and could have used a few more drafts and a guiding hand to clarify, focus, and decide: What is this book really going to be?
Lydia Smith, not her real name — check: Mysterious Past — is one of the Bright Ideas booksellers, — check: Indie Bookstore — the one to whom the BookFrogs, those outliers who loiter about the store — check: Idiosyncratic Characters — turn for comfort. It is Lydia who finds one of her favorite BookFrogs, Joey McGinty, hanging in the upper level of the bookstore —check: Death in the Community — and thus begins the piecing together of not so much as whodunnit as a who is it? Turns out almost everyone Lydia knows or has known is one way or another connected.
The details of Joey’s troubled past, about which he told Lydia, were only the beginning, and he’s left her coded puzzles of clues about who he was and where he came from via a series of books from which he’s cut patterns of boxes into pages. Lydia figures out how to decode, and, unfortunately, each message is then shown to us — taking up lots of page space to little effect as immediately following it, each message is written out in italics. This could better have been accomplished by ONCE actually reproducing one of the cut-out pages and coded answer beneath it in the novel which would have been a nice, quirky (that word again) production feature.
The solution to the clues rely on knowledge of ISBN codes, which are not adequately explained for non-book people, and one wonders why and whether a lover of books, like Joey, would choose a method of post-mortem messaging that defaced books?
We learn enough about Joey, and Lydia’s live-in lover, David, and her childhood friend, Raj and his parents, and her dad, and — well, lots of interesting and well-defined characters, to make us want (and expect) more of them, but we don’t get that more. We are left with what feel more like sketches than fleshed-out lives.
Again, this novel feels like it could have used a few more drafts to develop it further.
NOW, that said, these are cavils I could not have had were this author not so promisingly gifted, so adept and creative. The writing flows, the pace never lags, and I suspect this good book will be followed by even better books from this author who clearly has in them a great book.
So, there it is dear ones, three thrillers in a row. What next? Well, I’ve started the much recommended Lily and the Octopus, although it seems to be a dying dog story and I am still not over the death of any of the dogs I have known, and pet-sitting an ancient pup now who is slowing down at a frightening pace, so I may delay Lily. Also reading the glorious The Long-Winded Lady (Notes from The New Yorker), which is a collection of the writer, Maeve Brennan’s glorious pieces for the magazines The Talk of the Town section. How I had never heard of her before is a real mystery, but, also, a gift, because her work is glorious and takes me back to the imagined New York and literary circles of my childhood. Already in the first few pieces she has mentioned The Algonquin and Schrafft’s — I’m in literary-nerd heaven.
Here I am, dear ones, going.