The Witch Elm

⇒Secrets and lies color a life on the verge of incalculable change. This is the Butterfly Effect on Xanax.⇐


Author: Tana French

(3.64 stars – Goodreads rating)

Genre: Mystery

Format: Audiobook (CDs)

Published October 9, 2018, by Viking

Pages: 509 ; 18 Audio Discs (22 hours)

#TheWitchElm


What if I never got another day in my life when I was normal again?

Toby

In middle school, my friends and I (how I wish I could put it all on them, but I can’t) decided to prank our classmates. Just a certain few of them who we thought were a bit too big for their britches. We did the usual obnoxious phone calls – which worked back then because no one had caller ID yet (I’m dating myself) and everyone still used landlines. It was the perfect way for some bored pre-teens to spend Friday nights while also watching network TV and being housebound (no internet or social media back then).

One such prank went just a little further than the rest. We called one of our classmates and threatened to fight her (insert dramatic music and loads of judgment right here). She was a “mean girl” and totally deserved a good thrashing (Not really, but I’m trying to justify my 12-year-old mind). We told her to meet us by the water fountain on the red hall after lunch the next day – if she wasn’t scared. It was maddening to wait all those hours to see if she would actually show up!


So what in the world does this have to do with The Witch Elm? Spoiler Alert: this book is about questionable life choices. Well, it’s about a lot of things, but making bad life choices is key among them – bad choices that get justified along the way and then accepted as harmless or inconsequential. But let me let you read the Goodreads blurb to see what else it’s about:

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.


…one gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.

I’ve managed to get this far into the review without saying that I really didn’t like this book. Why? Well, I didn’t want to start out my fresh new year of reading with a dud. OK, let me be fair, it wasn’t a “dud”, but it wasn’t for me.

This book was a long, slow march to the death of everything I thought I loved about long reads and audiobooks. I started feeling like I was being punished around disc 5 and from there (all the way to disc 18) I was sure I had angered the literary gods somewhere along the way for them to steer me towards this dark, vice-riddled study in depravity. Then I started criticizing myself for being too critical! Maybe I just needed to get past Toby’s seemingly endless inner monologue and focus on the deeper meaning of the story: self-discovery, balancing perceptions with reality, etc. And I honestly tried to do that. But I still felt like getting through the whole thing wasn’t enjoyable – it was just drudgery.

There are plenty of people who 5-starred this book. It has been well-recognized and earnestly reviewed. And I should have left them to it.

To be fair, Tana French is a good author. Her prose is classically descriptive, and at some points reads like poetry. But… did there have to be so MUCH of it?! Half of the book takes place in Toby’s head (not a comfortable place to be, btw) and the best action only happens when he looks outside into the world for a change. What’s most troublesome about that is that he is not a likable character. You want to like him, but he doesn’t allow it. He’s unreliable for many reasons, not the least of which is that he’s wishy-washy. First, the answer is A, but then it could be B. Nope, back to A, I’m sure of it. Wait… but now C is looking interesting… But I can’t discount B again because remember that time back in high school… Arrrrgggghhhhhhh!!!!!!!!

…it was me, wronged innocent, white knight, cunning investigator, killer, selfish oblivious dick, petty provocateur, take your pick, what does it matter? it’ll all change again.

Toby

High praise to Paul Nugent, the audiobook narrator, however, whose lilting Irish brogue was my only salvation as we both slogged through this 18-disc, 22-hour behemoth of a book. Twenty-two hours! That’s almost a full day of tainted introspection, Xanax-influenced rants, and the tiniest bits of truth tossed in here and there about guarded explorations into the weight of our perceptions of the world around us.


So by now you may be wondering whatever happened with the water fountain fight threat. Can you believe that she actually showed up? And with a group of her “mean girl” friends too! My friends and I stood just close enough in the midst of the gathering crowd to hear their heated conversation about what they would do if “whoever” showed up. We didn’t want any of what they were promising! Plus, we had no real intentions of fighting anyone anyway. Even though it was great middle school drama, it was ultimately a waste of everyone’s time and energy, and I stopped pranking after that. Life lesson learned. And another one learned years later: be very wary of 500+ page Tana French books.


Tana French is the New York Times bestselling author of In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, The Secret Place, The Trespasser, and The Witch Elm. Her books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry Awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family.


Past Tense (Jack Reacher, #23)

⇒NEW RELEASE REVIEW: What happens when a hunt for living relatives turns into a deadly manhunt.⇐

**Many thanks to NetGalley, Delacorte Press, and the author for the opportunity to read a free ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

by Lee Child

SmellRating5

(4.31 stars – Goodreads rating)

Publish Date: November 5, 2018, by Delacorte Press

Genre: Fiction / Thriller / Mystery

Format: Kindle Edition

Pages: 382 pages (Hardcover)

#PastTense  #NetGalley

Past Tense (Jack Reacher, #23)What kind of bad things could happen at a motel with a roadblock?

If you follow me on Goodreads, or Instagram, or if we are irl friends, you may already know about the not-so-secret love affair I have with the character Jack Reacher. And if this is the first you’re hearing about it, don’t worry. It’s not a mushy, annoying type of love where I am crushing on him and desperately hoping to meet a flesh and bone replica and make him my future Mr. PSquared. Although…

Ok, ok, back to reality. I just really do love Jack Reacher. He is so imperturbable, even in the middle of insurmountable odds and danger that would crumple a lesser man. He is an everyday hero (like Batman sans utility belt), and those are the kinds of dudes I love to see heading up my mystery/thrillers.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

If you have never read any of Lee Child’s Reacher series where have you been? , here’s what you can expect: an unencumbered man hitchhiking through the country (often just trying to get somewhere warm), he mainly minds his own business, but trouble always finds him. He’s big, he’s not handsome in any movie star or romance novel kind of way, and he’s strong – like hella strong. He’s smart. He’s a strategist. He fights for the underdog and he hates to see injustice in any form. He’s the working man’s hero.

So, in Past Tense, Reacher has hitched as far as New Hampshire from Maine and finds himself near the little town where his father grew up. The pull of family ties leads him to visit and try to learn more about his dad and search for any possible relatives still in the area. But we’ve all heard that old adage about being careful what you ask for and, in this case, it couldn’t be more true.

The Goodreads blurb:

Jack Reacher hits the pavement and sticks out his thumb. He plans to follow the sun on an epic trip across America, from Maine to California. He doesn’t get far. On a country road deep in the New England woods, he sees a sign to a place he has never been: the town where his father was born. He thinks, What’s one extra day? He takes the detour.
At the same moment, in the same isolated area, a car breaks down. Two young Canadians had been on their way to New York City to sell a treasure. Now they’re stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. The owners seem almost too friendly. It’s a strange place, but it’s all there is.

The next morning, in the city clerk’s office, Reacher asks about the old family home. He’s told no one named Reacher ever lived in town. He’s always known his father left and never returned, but now Reacher wonders, Was he ever there in the first place?

As Reacher explores his father’s life, and as the Canadians face lethal dangers, strands of different stories begin to merge. Then Reacher makes a shocking discovery: The present can be tough, but the past can be tense . . . and deadly.

Surprise was always a good thing. A wise man never counted all the way to three.

You probably have a favorite series. Even if you love it beyond what’s socially acceptable (for non-readers), you’re aware that there are certain books in that series that are substantially better than others. It’s unavoidable – especially for the number of books that Lee Child has racked up with Jack Reacher. I mean 23 books! There’s bound to be some duds in there (not really, but I felt obligated to say it). But Past Tense is not that dud.

Child’s latest release is easily one of my favorite Reacher books to date. It has everything I love about this character inside a taut, mystery-cloaked thriller. It also has excellent pacing, nail-biting tension, equally likable and despicable characters, and Jack Reacher as his usual unflappable, unintentionally heroic self in the midst of it all.

And Patty and Shorty being unwilling co-stars in this sadistic drama don’t come off too badly themselves. I rooted for them and waited with bated breath for their first encounter with our intrepid traveler. And when they did, it was well worth the wait!

If I’ve got you on the hook and you really want to experience this book (because it is an experience!), but you’re wondering if you’d have to read 22 books before you could enjoy this one, let me ease your mind. There are some Reacher books that do have a certain flow as he journeys back and forth across the country getting into and out of different life-threatening situations on his way to a specific destination. However, each one is its own adventure and you will not miss anything by reading Past Tense as a standalone. My bet is, that when you do, you will want to pick up Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, #1) to see how all this started. And then, my friend, you are hooked!

She looked back at him. There was a man right behind him. A giant.

I’ve said this before – on Goodreads and Instagram – but it bears repeating: If you have watched tiny Tom Cruise on the big screen starring as Jack Reacher in those two films, just know that book fans abhor that casting. (Insert all the frowny face, angry face, squoosh face emojis here).

Tom Cruise is 5’7″ tall and is less than 150 pounds. Some people would say he is handsome (not me, personally), and he has a small, college-kid-turned-older-man frame.

Let’s see how Lee Child describes Jack Reacher: “He was a tall man, more than six feet five in his shoes, heavily built, all bone and muscle, not particularly good looking, never very well dressed, usually a little unkempt.”

Does that sound like great casting to you? Nope. It’s like casting Linda Hunt as Olympe Maxime. But I digress…

So, please do not picture little, wimpy T.C. while you’re reading this action-packed thriller. Think of that massive, ruggedly-dressed dude that sat in the corner of your high school classroom facing the door. He didn’t say much, but he was respected. Not mean, not aggressive, but just edging on this side of threatening. Not one to be messed with. Definitely, the one you want on your side. Cast your own Reacher as you read because I have my own, and I absolutely am enamored with him!

Read the first chapter of Past Tense (courtesy of LeeChild.com) HERE.


About the Author

Lee ChildLEE CHILD

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Lee Child is the author of twenty-two New York Times bestselling Jack Reacher thrillers, with thirteen having reached the #1 position, and the #1 bestselling complete Jack Reacher story collection, No Middle Name. All of his novels have been optioned for major motion pictures – including Jack Reacher (based on One Shot) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Foreign rights have sold in one hundred territories. A native of England and a former television director, Child lives in New York City.

(Bio courtesy of Delacorte Press)


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The President Is Missing

by Bill Clinton and James Patterson
SmellRating4
(3.98 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published July 4, 2018, by Hachette Audio

Genre: Fiction / Political Thriller

Format: Audible Audiobook

Narrators: Dennis Quaid, January LaVoy, Peter Ganim, Jeremy Davidson, and Mozhan Marnò

#ThePresidentismissing

The President Is Missing by Bill ClintonTake out the leader, and the rest of the pack panics.

Back in 2001, a little show called 24 hit the small screen. Jack Bauer, expertly played by Kiefer Sutherland, as a member of LA’s Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) “raced against the clock to subvert terrorist plots and save his nation from ultimate disaster” – as IMDb puts it. And I was there for every second of it!

There were plots and sub-plots, bad guys, good guys, bad guys who became good guys, good guys who became bad guys, good women, bad women, and worse women… and in the middle of it all, there was Jack Bauer just trying to save the country from destruction over and over again. It was easily one of my favorite shows.

So it was no surprise when, later, another little show called Scandal rocked my world. Once again, it was a highly skilled team (lead by one amazing person) rescuing us from devastation. This time Olivia Pope, played dynamically by Kerry Washington, advised the hell out of everybody in the White House and beyond, managing crises that threatened all sorts of highly ranked officials, including the president himself.

So why wasn’t I into reading this book at first?

Primarily, I think that I assumed that it wouldn’t be any good. #Truth. I mean, really – a fiction novel written by a former president? Pass. I was initially less than interested. It didn’t even tickle my reading radar at all.

Then, one morning while I was dressing to go spend a day of vacation on the beach in Hilton Head, I watched an interview with Bill Clinton and James Patterson about the book, its storyline, and why they wanted to write it. By the end of the interview, I was sold.

They both spoke about including authentic action in response to real-life scenarios that are very genuine threats to national and international security. And Patterson mentioned that he consulted with Bill Clinton specifically to make it as detailed as possible and to get all the facts right. I love authenticity in books. It says to me that even though a story may be fictional, the author cares enough about it to get it right.

After reading this book, I am glad that I saw the interview and totally satisfied with my decision to change my mind and check it out. It is – at its essence – a James Patterson book. If you’re familiar with his writing style, you will feel his touches and patterns throughout the story.

However, I was also distinctly aware of President Clinton’s experienced voice weaving within the narrative, especially (and not surprisingly) in the character of President Duncan. Duncan is the president that Clinton aspired to be and that I wish we had today. Strong, but flawed; brave, but cautious; powerful, but compassionate. The story shows us all these sides of a heroic leader who is battling threats to his command on both foreign and domestic fronts.

When the mountains and molehills all look the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter most to our people. Even when we try to do that, we’re often drowned out by the passion of the day.

Here’s a little of the plot without spoilers: President Duncan faces one of the most difficult weeks in his life. He is asked to attend a congressional hearing that will decide if he is to be impeached, he is also notified that a cyber terrorist is planning to detonate an Armageddon-level attack on the United States, and a chronic infirmity of his is once again rearing its deadly head. Duncan knows there is a mole within the White House, and it’s one of his most trusted Circle of Eight. He must figure out who he can trust before the cyber-terrorist strikes and plunges the entire nation back into the Dark Ages.

The Wild, Wild West, this cyberterrorism. This new, scary frontier. Anyone sitting on a couch in his underwear could undermine the security of a nation.

It’s set in real time over the course of 4-5 days with a large cast of sufficiently fleshed-out characters. There’s a lot of political instruction (not the most enjoyable), a lot of misdirection (entirely enjoyable), and multiple points of view which keeps the action interesting and fluid.

The President is Missing is heavy on the patriotism, equally involved with explanations of certain key members of all three branches of government and their duties, and reverently appreciative of how indispensable the secret service is to the protection of our nation’s leaders – none of which I ended up minding even though it seemed to slow the action down significantly at times. I could really feel Clinton’s expertise and admiration in those chapters and it made me appreciate his in-depth contributions.

Despite an epilogue that came across as a bit long-winded and too patriotically “preachy” (but on its face was meant to inspire and unite us – I could practically hear Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” playing in the background during the president’s speech), I enjoyed this book and have already recommended it to others who also enjoy James Patterson, political fiction, and a few select friends who really enjoy a good thriller with a stealthy terrorist plot!

Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook here.

Buy it here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Google Play


About the Authors

Image result for james patterson and bill clintonBill Clinton and James Patterson

JP Website

Clinton’s Twitter

Patterson’s Twitter

William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe III) was the forty-second President of the United States, serving from 1993 to 2001. Since leaving office, Clinton has been involved in public speaking and humanitarian work. He created the William J. Clinton Foundation to promote and address international causes, such as treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS and global warming. In 2004, he released a personal autobiography, My Life.

James Patterson has created more enduring fictional characters than any other novelist writing today, with his Alex Cross, Michael Bennett, Women’s Murder Club, Private, NYPD Red, Daniel X, Maximum Ride, and Middle School series. As of January 2016, he has sold over 375 million books worldwide and currently holds the Guinness World Record for the most #1 New York Times bestsellers. In addition to writing the thriller novels for which he is best known, he also writes children’s, middle-grade, and young-adult fiction and is the first author to have #1 new titles simultaneously on the New York Times adult and children’s bestseller lists.


 

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Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present

**Many thanks to NetGalley, Berkley Publishing Group, and the author for the opportunity to read and review a free ARC of this book.

by Peter Vronsky

SmellRating3.5

(3.67 stars – Goodreads rating)

Publish Date: August 14, 2018, by Berkley Publishing Group

Genre: Non-Fiction / True Crime

Format: Kindle Edition

Pages: 432 (Paperback)

#SonsofCain  #NetGalley

Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the PresentWe  know very little – next to nothing – about why there are serial killers.

I can’t give you a solid reason why I am morbidly obsessed with serial killers. I know that it originated mostly from a strong desire to understand what makes them do what they do, and then also to learn how I can best avoid them.

I’ve read countless novels featuring serial killers who vary between brilliantly organized and rage-filled disorganized types, those with calculated MOs and those with no apparent method or motive at all.

Sons of Cain is also not the first nonfiction book I’ve read on the subject of serial killers, but it is one of the most methodically researched in terms of overall focus and breadth of discussion. Vronsky begins at the very beginning of human existence and follows the life cycle of man into present day and on into our possible future encounters with compulsive multiple murderers. A chilling journey.

Mother Nature is a cruel psychopath herself, with no empathy for her progeny.

Vronsky explores the natural survival instincts of Neanderthal man and his rival Homo Sapiens and their contributions to the killer instincts of those who have confessed to multiple murders. The eras of supposed werewolf/vampire slayings and witch huntings are also featured. Occurrences of serial murders in historic times is perhaps the most interesting and gruesome part of this book.

Oh, and of course, Vronksky’s personal account of the day he literally ran into a very vicious serial killer himself – and lived to tell the tale.

It was an entirely random encounter with a monster who had brutally bound, gagged, raped, tortured and killed two street prostitutes in his room upstairs…

Well-researched and meticulously footnoted and annotated, the book seems to be very inclusive; however, it knowingly neglects female offenders in this category. I guess we have to refer to his previous book, Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters, for that. Also, he mentions that our typical description of a serial killer is a 30-year-old white male; however over 50% of serial killers are now African-American. However, very few are featured here. The book does do a good job though of exposing little-known male offenders that aren’t often included in serial killer discussions headlined by the likes of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Jack the Ripper.

Sons of Cain was at times captivating (especially Vronsky’s personal encounters – yes, there was more than one) and at times gruesome and disheartening. There are graphic descriptions of individual crimes (sensitive readers be warned) and discouraging statistics about the vast numbers of killers in the world today, the even higher number of victims, and the infinitely varied reasons why serial offenders become what they are.

Psychopaths do not “feel” and are disoriented when asked to describe emotions which are foreign to them. Psychopaths can feign the outward appearance of emotions, but they don’t know how to describe them effectively in words.

I mentioned before that my obsession stems from a desire to known the unknown and to answer the unanswerable question: why? I can’t say that this book answers my question, but it did give me a greater understanding of the social and environmental elements that “create” the psychopathy in people that later become killers. Please don’t read that as me sympathizing with them in any way. I don’t. But research has shown commonalities in upbringing and traumas experienced by these people – and that those experiences can contribute to altered mental states, I believe. Ultimately, there are no easy answers, and Vronsky states as much.

This was not an easy book to read, but it was definitely gripping and scary in a way that none of my fiction favorites could ever aspire to be.

Buy it here: Amazon


About the Author

Peter VronskyPeter Vronsky

Website

Twitter

PETER VRONSKY is an author, filmmaker, artist, and historian. He is the author of a series of books on the history serial homicide: Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters and Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters. The third book in this series, Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers From the Stone Age to the Present is scheduled to be released in August 2018 by Penguin Random House – Berkley Books. He lives in Toronto and Venice, Italy.

(Bio courtesy of Goodreads)


 

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The Last Straw (Pigeon-Blood Red, #2)

**Many thanks to Kelsey at Book Publicity Services and the author for the opportunity to read and review a free ARC of this book.

by Ed Duncan

SmellRating3

(4.23 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published December 2, 2017

Genre: Crime Fiction / Thriller

Format: Paperback

Pages: 227

#TheLastStraw #EdDuncan

The Last Straw (Pigeon-Blood Red Book 2)If he was so harmless, why did you practically kill him? Because that’s what harmless guys get. Dangerous guys get something else.

The Last Straw is a fast-paced crime mystery that begins with an accidental witness and a crime boss’s peculiar motive for wanting that witness to disappear. It’s a story that pits Rico – a criminal with a conscience – against a second-best hitman with a grudge. And it forces Paul Elliott – a good guy with blood on his hands – back into a world he barely escaped only a few months ago.


Goodreads Synopsis:

When a teenage girl witnesses a carjacking gone bad, she is marked for death by a crime boss with no apparent motive. A black lawyer and a white enforcer with an unlikely history forge an uneasy alliance to protect the girl from a hitman with an agenda of his own. 

After they find out that the crime boss is the father of the black teenage carjacker, Paul Elliott – lawyer and close friend of the witness’s family – begins counseling them. 

As the long-simmering feud between Rico and John D’Angelo reaches boiling point, bodies start to pile up in rapid succession… and old scores will be settled.


He was a ball of contradictions: as faithful as a cocker spaniel or as vicious as a pit bull.

Duncan does a great job of making most of the characters either increasingly likable (Rico) or infinitely despicable (D’Angelo). The one exception was Evelyn’s character, who I wanted to like, but her excessive angst was obnoxious (even under the dire circumstances). The multiple POVs made for varied and interesting perspectives and contributed to the excellent pacing.

The story is amply layered with highlights being tense shootouts, close calls, and unexpected twists, as well as an undersurface friendship that is budding (albeit grudgingly) between Paul and Rico. Apart from some awkwardly abrupt scene changes, the book was well-written and engaging.

The Last Straw is book #2 of a trilogy. Book 3 is pending, but you can find info on the first book of the series, Pigeon-Blood Red, here.


About the Author

Ed DuncanEd Duncan

Website

Twitter

Ed is a graduate of Oberlin College and Northwestern University Law School. He was a partner at a national law firm in Cleveland, Ohio for many years. He is the original author of a highly regarded legal treatise entitled “Ohio Insurance Coverage,” for which he provided annual editions from 2008 through 2012.
Ed currently lives outside of Cleveland, OH. He is at work on the second installment in the Pigeon-Blood Red trilogy.

(Bio from Goodreads)


 

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The Hangman’s Secret (Victorian Mystery, #3)

**Many thanks to NetGalley, Crooked Lane Books, and the author for the opportunity to read a free ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

by Laura Joh Rowland

SmellRating4

(3.88 stars – Goodreads rating)

Expected Publication: January 8, 2019, by Crooked Lane Books

Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Historical Fiction

Format: Kindle Edition

Pages: 304

#TheHangmansSecret  #NetGalley

The Hangman's Secret (Victorian Mystery, #3)When we’re confronted with a mystery, we feel compelled to solve it, even if it’s none of our business.

Was there ever a kinder, gentler time? You would want to think so. I know I read a lot of fiction, but I’d like to believe that an age actually existed where people were more respectful, more polite, and they valued each other.

After reading this book, it made me doubt that such a time ever existed. So many bad guys (and gals), and all of them mean, nasty, and physically violent – especially against the main character, who is a woman! Those instances left a bad taste in my mouth. But that is not an overall reflection on this book, which I enjoyed reading and felt was a suspenseful, engaging mystery!

I’m interested to hear that a hangman has met the same end that he inflicted on others. It’s as if his past has caught up with him, and fate has exacted justice.

Harry Warbrick, a London hangman, is found hanged in his own pub – hanged and decapitated. Sarah Bain and her friends are called upon to photograph the scene for the Daily World newspaper, but is it a suicide or murder?

Soon it’s the paper vs. the police in a spiteful contest to see who can solve the case first. Sarah, Lord Hugh, and Mick have previously solved two other dangerous cases, but this could be the one that could finally do them in. Plus, Sarah’s relationship with officer Thomas Barrett is also on the line and Sarah isn’t sure if their love can outlast another case.

With a laundry list of possible suspects, Sarah & Co have their hands full solving the mystery of the hanged hangman while trying to stay alive while the murderer covers his/her tracks.

But I thrill at the prospect of a new crime to solve, and all my life I’ve been attracted to danger. Fear makes me feel alive. It’s a quirk of my nature.

The Hangman’s Secret is full of action and suspense. Its characters are loyal to each other, but I found them to be a bit cookie-cutter. I enjoyed the unique friendship between Sarah, Lord Hugh, and Mick, but the three of them had so many antagonists – perhaps a few too many for my taste. 

You know how you feel when the main character has a few too many enemies and not enough allies? That’s how I felt while reading this book. Enemies to the left and right; and not just regular “bad guys” either – disrespectful, vindictive, violent, spiteful buggers.

But the pacing was good and the setting of the mystery was enough to keep me entertained. There were also enough suspects and distractions to delay the actual culprit-reveal in a satisfying way. I do wish that Sarah was a bit more assertive. Maybe then she wouldn’t get pushed around (literally and figuratively) as much as she does.

Four stars for this Victorian historical mystery!


About the Author:

Laura Joh RowlandWebsite

Facebook

Laura Joh Rowland is a bestselling author of historical mystery novels. Her newest series stars Miss Sarah Bain, a photographer in Victorian London. The latest book is A Mortal Likeness. Laura’s previous series, which is set in medieval Japan and features samurai detective Sano Ichiro, has been published in 21 countries, been nominated for the Anthony Award and the Hammett Prize, won RT Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Award, and been included in The Wall Street Journal’s list of the five best historical mystery novels. Laura has also written a historical suspense series about Charlotte Bronte, the famous Victorian author.

Laura holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Michigan. She is a former aerospace scientist, a painter, and a cartoonist. She lives in New York City with her husband Marty.



 

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The Fifth to Die, (4MK Thriller #2)

**Many thanks to NetGalley, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, and the author for the opportunity to read and review a free ARC of this book.

by J.D. Barker
SmellRating4.5
(4.48 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published July 10, 2018, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing

Genre: Crime Fiction / Thriller / Mystery

Format: Kindle Edition

Page Count: 416 pages

#TheFifthToDie  #NetGalley

The Fifth To Die (4MK Thriller, #2)A girl can’t just disappear in today’s world, not with cameras and the Internet everywhere. A girl disappears completely, and you gotta know something bad happened.

I didn’t think I was that person. Those people are hilarious to me. They lack any self-control and it’s utterly ridiculous what they do. You know the ones: The ones who talk to their books.

I have been that person in the past, but I thought it was just a fluke – a one-off. After The Fifth to Die, though, I know now that I am that person. I talked to this book. I yelled at this book. I urged the characters, “Don’t go in there!”, “Don’t do that!”, and to “Run you fool!” It’s amazing that no one committed me.

OK, so if you aren’t familiar with this series, it all started with The Fourth Monkey – and no, it has nothing to do with viral contagions or pandemics. (See my 5-star review of the series’ debut novel by clicking the link above.) Detective Sam Porter and his Chicago PD Homicide team initially think that, after five long years, the Four Monkey Killer (4MK) has finally been stopped. By a bus. But there’s one victim that may still be alive that needs to be found. That’s when the twists begin and they don’t stop, even as Porter tries to settle his own tragic personal issues.

So – because this is the sequel – obviously the serial killer, Anson Bishop (that’s technically not a spoiler, so don’t yell at me!), is still wreaking havoc in the Windy City.  Maybe. Girls are disappearing, families are being threatened, and none of the clues are adding up. On top of that, more than one person on the team is concerned that Porter may be too personally involved with the 4MK case that has now been turned over to the FBI.

This thriller is perfectly-paced, entirely unpredictable, and maddeningly mysterious. We also get some well-earned backstory on Detective Sam Porter, which only enriches his character even more. And then there is Anson Bishop. While he certainly adds color to this procedural, he is definitely the villain you love to hate. But is there a little molecule of sympathy you feel for him after some of Bishop’s backstory is revealed too? I’ll let you decide.

I prefer not to collect my psychological and spiritual guidance from psychopaths.

Initially, I deducted a full star from my rating because, at certain points in the book, Bishop is just a little too smart. He is good at everything: tech, surgery, espionage, blackmailing, and torturous murder. He’s always a full three or four steps ahead of everyone else. And he’s dong all this right under the nose of countless witnesses including neighbors, hospital employees, prison guards, and the police themselves. Really? I don’t like it when anyone – hero or villain – is invincible.

However, I had to restore half a star because of Barker’s stealthy allusions to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character (more than once) and the fact that he makes The Princess Bride (my all-time favorite movie) the reason that Porter married his beloved wife. Swoon!

So if you find yourself talking to, yelling at, or crying with your books, you’ll feel right at home reading this one. If you’re already a fan of The Fourth Monkey, action-heavy police procedurals, or mysteries that aren’t easily solved, you’ll like this book. And if you’re a fan of twisty cliffhangers, grab a parachute and dive in because you WILL like this book.

Bravo, J.D. Barker, you’ve done it again. Looking forward to Book #3!

*Also, do yourself a favor and check out another J.D. Barker book, Dracul, that he co-authored with Dacre Stoker (Yes! Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew). It’s a prequel to the classic Dracula story and it was so good it kept me up at night!


About the Author

Related imageJ.D. Barker

Website

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J.D. Barker (Jonathan Dylan Barker) is an international bestselling American author whose work has been broadly described as suspense thrillers, often incorporating elements of horror, crime, mystery, science fiction, and the supernatural.

(Bio courtesy of jdbarker.com)


 

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The Broken Girls

by Simone St. James
SmellRating4
(4.11 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published March 20, 2018, by Berkley Books

Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Thriller

Format: Hardcover

Page Count: 326 pages

#TheBrokenGirls

The Broken GirlsIdlewild was an old place, and the fear here was old fear.

What makes you pick up a book and say, “Oooh, this looks good!”? Is it all about the cover? Or are you pulled in by specific story tropes: courtroom drama, rags to riches romances, etc.? Maybe certain characters always pique your interest, like witches or faeries, or sexy mechanics.

There are certain things that always pull me into a book; a masterfully crafted cover will pull me in, and something like what Simone St. James does with the blurb for The Broken Girls will usually seal the deal.

Blurb:
Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants – the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming – until one of them mysteriously disappears…

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her elder sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found dumped in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case. 

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past – and a voice that won’t be silenced.

Thrillers are definitely my go-to reading genre, but add in dual timelines, a real-life bad guy, and a questionably “real” bad-girl ghost along with a group of headstrong girls at a boarding school and there’s no way I wasn’t plucking this one off the shelf!

We were all so horribly afraid.

The Broken Girls is a Vermont-based thriller with side orders of murder mystery and ghost story. Fiona (“Fee”) Sheridan lost her sister to a senseless murder and nothing has been the same in her life since that day 20 years ago. When she learns that mysterious investors plan on restoring the boarding school that sits on the land where her sister’s body was found, Fee decides to write a story about it for the local newspaper (read: invent an excuse so she can investigate it on her own).

Sounds normal enough start for a mystery novel, right? sure. But the book also flashes back to a 1950’s storyline when the boarding school, Idlewild, was open and the ne’er-do-well girls who lived there were being haunted by a ghost named Mary Hand. Yeah, it gets creepy. I’m glad I read this in the daylight hours because let me tell you, Mary Hand was NOT a Casper-type ghost. This chick is angry!

Mary Hand, Mary Hand, Dead and buried underland. She’ll say she wants to be your friend. Do not let her in again.

There is a lot going on in this book. There is plenty of action going on in 1950 all by itself, then you jump back to Fiona’s storyline in 2014 which includes her freelance journalism (and not-so-private investigating), her unorthodox relationship with her policeman boyfriend, and the constant reminder of her sister’s violent death nagging at her. She just can’t let it go.

That’s a lot to juggle. (Not to mention a couple of really intense chase scenes!) And while St. James didn’t keep it balanced successfully throughout the entire book, the story is still engaging, the characters intriguing, and the ending was hauntingly thrilling.

The best thing about this book is that it’s equally appealing to fans of so many different genres (way to stack the deck Simone!). It’s like a mystery, thriller, horror smorgasbord where nobody leaves the book buffet hungry!

I snagged this book on the cheap at Half-Price Books (and I plan on selling it back to them on my next visit. Perks!), and it was a like-new Book of the Month edition. I love finding great deals on fairly new releases. This was surprisingly my first Simone St. James book, but I would gladly read her again. Her writing style is captivating and her characters come alive with each chapter.

And before I end this review, I have to acknowledge the Book Smell Quote that snuck in between all the drama and screaming! One of the boarding school girls, Sonia, gets a notebook as a gift and she does the first thing you’re OBLIGATED to do when you get a new book of any type…

So Sonia picked it up and opened the notebook. She dipped her head down into the book’s spine, inhaling deeply of the thick papery scent, feeling something strange and calm move down the back of her neck, into her shoulders, her spine. She felt small, prickling sparks in the top of her brain.

THAT’S THAT NEW BOOK SMELL, BABY!


About the Author

Simone St. JamesWebsite

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Simone St. James is the award-winning author of Lost Among the Living; The Other Side of Midnight; Silence for the Dead; An Inquiry into Love and Death, which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada; and the The Haunting of Maddy Clare, which won two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America and an Arthur Ellis Award from Crime Writers of Canada. She wrote her first ghost story, about a haunted library, when she was in high school, and spent twenty years behind the scenes in the television business before leaving to write full-time.

(Bio courtesy of book cover)


 

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The Widow

by Fiona Barton
SmellRating4
(3.49 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published January 17, 2017, by Berkley Books

Genre: Fiction / Suspense / Crime Mystery

Format: Trade Paperback

Page Count: 344 pages (including an excerpt of The Child)

** Warning: Mild Spoilers**


TheWidowShe has no idea what I’ve been through. No one has really. I’ve never been able to tell anyone. Glen said that was best.

Two-year-old Bella Elliott went missing from her front garden on one October afternoon. Immediately, the police suspected that someone had taken her and they began their search for Bella and the suspects in earnest. That search eventually led detectives to the front door of Glen and Jean Taylor.

What follows is the account of the case built against unassuming Glen Taylor – its promises and missteps, its discoveries and its secrecies – told by the detective in charge of the case, the reporter who got exclusive access, and Glen’s wife (now widow) who supported his innocence relentlessly.

You see, Glen was disappearing from my life really. He was there but not there, if you know what I mean. The computer was more of a wife than I was — in all sorts of ways, as it turned out.

The primary “star” of the book is Jean (prefers Jeanie) Taylor, the accused’s wife. After her husband is suddenly killed in a freak accident, the detectives and press are hounding her to finally spill her secrets. What does she know about baby Bella’s kidnapping? Is Glen guilty of the crime? Is she also involved? Jeanie’s stalwart defense of her husband thwarts the investigation repeatedly, but everyone can tell – even the reader – that Jeanie knows more than she’s saying. And those secret things are revealed only gradually, like a slow-dripping faucet leak – building up and then eventually dropping down once the pressure is too much to take.

Jeanie is an immensely interesting and layered character. She garners sympathy because on the surface she appears to be damaged goods – the unlucky widow of an accused kidnapper and pedophile. But as Jeanie’s layers are peeled back, sympathy is replaced by anger, pity, understanding, and judgment in incongruent amounts. For some, she will be entirely relatable. For others, she will be an embarrassment to women for not being stronger, more forthright, or more independent.

It’s quite nice really, to have someone in charge of me again. I was beginning to panic that I’d have to cope with everything on my own…

Fiona Barton writes an engrossing and nail-biting novel about family loyalty wrapped in the cover of a frantic crime mystery. My personal loyalties and trust ping-ponged from character to character, often changing from chapter to chapter. Who is guilty? Who is truly innocent? 

If Glen and Jeanie did steal Bella, where is she now? Could Jeanie have acted alone and she’s just outsmarting everyone by allowing Glen to take the fall? That wouldn’t have been too far-fetched since she was desperate for a child after years of dealing with Glen’s sterility. Could that longing have pressured her into doing something terrible?

But if that was the case, why would Jeanie be wary of Glen after the first investigation falls apart and he is freed? She doesn’t want to go back to their house with him, but her loyalty compels her to do so without complaint. This is one of the moments when I wanted to slap her out of her stupor. SAY SOMETHING, JEANIE! But she doesn’t. Again.

All I keep thinking is that I’ve got to go home with him. Be on my own with him. What will it be like when we shut the door? I know too much about this other man I’m married to for it to be like before.

Barton’s supporting characters are equally as interesting: Glen with his secret porn addiction and control-freak tendencies; Kate Waters, the intrepid reporter who fights her own personal sympathies to get to the dirt of the story; and Bob Sparkes, the veteran detective who has been unable to help letting Bella’s case get too close to him.

The Widow is a book I was reluctant to put down – even when real life responsibilities were pulling at me. It sucked me in! I love an unreliable narrator, it makes the mystery even more, well… mysterious! Plus, I love a great whodunit not told exclusively from the POV of the police force. We’ve got almost everyone’s perspective here – even the grieving mother’s. It adds depth to the suspense and the action is in more places at the same time.

Readers who love an easily read crime mystery with great character development and a fast plot (that doesn’t feel rushed) will enjoy The Widow.  Although it felt good to be able to foretell certain aspects of the story (I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Glen’s accident wasn’t entirely accidental), it took nothing away from the tense build-up and ultimate “aha-moment” denouement. I would definitely recommend it to others.


About the Author

Fiona BartonWebsite

Twitter

My career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world. The worm of my first book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know. Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow was published in 36 countries and made the Sunday Times and New York Times Best Seller lists. It gave me the confidence to write a second book, The Child, in which I return to another story that had intrigued me as a journalist. My husband and I are still living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Titch, crowing.

(Bio adapted from Fiona Barton’s website)


 

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The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

by Stuart Turton

SmellRating4
(4.16 stars – Goodreads rating)

To Be Republished September 4, 2018, by Sourcebooks Landmark

Genre: Fiction / Mystery

Format: Kindle Edition

Page Count: 432 pages

I’d like to believe I’m a good man who came to help, but if that’s the case, I’m making a damn mess of things.

Every night, Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. Every night. That is unless Aidan Bishop can solve the mystery of her murder and give her killer’s name to the one pulling all the strings – the Plague Doctor, therefore ending the loop.

I have to admit that this book didn’t grab me at first – there were so many characters, so many events to keep track of, and a lot of incongruous action that happens in and out of time. It was not easy to follow. However, as the truth of Aidan’s involvement becomes apparent, the intricacies of this clever mystery become fully appreciable.

I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.

Stuart Turton has written a suspenseful novel with charismatic characters that will at once charm you deeper into the story and baffle your tenuous understanding of it even more.

I recommend this book to lovers of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, as well as fans of suspenseful mysteries and whodunits. It’s Groundhog Day with a murder mystery twist.

I can see the breadcrumbs laid out ahead of me, but for all I know, they’re leading me toward a cliff edge.

Many thanks to NetGalley, Sourcebooks Landmark, and the author for the opportunity to read and review this book.


 

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