The Witness // Before I Wake // by Dee Henderson

I had so many good resolutions when I last posted here, all these ways I was going to get caught up on my backlog of reviews and get this blog back on track!  …and then my internet went out for a week.  Ah well, such is life.  I don’t really get all that stressed about it, other than the fact that the piles of books around my computer are threatening to topple over…

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading through Dee Henderson’s standalone novels.  It started because I received her most recent book, Threads of Suspicion, as an ARC from Bethany House.  Now this book is the second book in Henderson’s new series – the Evie Blackwell Cold Cases.  Being myself, I thought I would just go ahead and read the first book, Traces of Guilt, first, and then I would be good to go.  I really have a problem of not being able to dip in and out of series… I basically feel a compulsion to read them all, in order.

So anyway, I open up Traces of Guilt and start to read… and on the very first page is a character that I definitely remembered from being in one of Henderson’s other books!  So then I started wondering if this really was a new series, or if there were going to be a lot overlapping characters……..and before I knew it, I had been sucked in, and ended up reading all of the novels she has published since her O’Malley series (which I actually really enjoyed).

Here’s the thing:  Henderson’s “standalone” novels aren’t really standalones… a lot of them have interconnecting characters, which, over time, does become kind of important.  I’m at the point now where I’ve been immersed in her world for eight books, though, so it’s kind of hard for me to say whether or not these books would make sense if genuinely read on their own.  Some of them would, I think, but others it seems like a lot would go over your head if you didn’t know some of the background for the characters.  What I really don’t understand is why, in general, authors don’t indicate when books are connected??  I’m not sure if they don’t want to scare people off by making their  books a series or what, but I’ve come across this with other authors as well, and it honestly drives me crazy.  I WANT TO READ THE BOOKS IN ORDER and it’s extremely aggravating when I can’t even figure out what order that is supposed to be because the author is pretending like they are all independent books when they AREN’T!  With Henderson, I had to go through and determine when each book had been published and read them in that order.  What.  Even.

SO.  General ranting about the concept of calling books standalone when they are not, in fact, standalone, is over – on to the actual books themselves!

The problem is that I really enjoyed the O’Malley series so much.  They were engaging, exciting, full of solid conversations, and tackled topics and themes in a realistic and thought-provoking way without ever sounding preachy.  And none of Henderson’s other books have lived up to those in my mind, so even though many of her books are pretty decent, I’m always somewhat disappointed because they aren’t as good as the O’Malley series.

With that in mind…  I found both The Witness and Before I Wake to be 3/5 reads.  They were interesting and had decent characterization, but somehow just lacked the zing.

//published 2006//

The Witness was just a bit slow, especially since it SEEMED like it should be quite exciting.  Luke is the chief of police and, in the first chapter, is on the scene shortly after a shooting takes place in a jewelry store.  The only witness is a young woman who, Luke eventually finds out, is on the run from a different crime she witnessed several years earlier.  While the story started well, it slowly devolved from a thriller into a gentle romance, a theme I found running through several of Henderson’s books.  It just doesn’t seem right to advertise a book as a romantic thriller when it’s basically just the romantic part…

Soon there were too many couples:  Luke and Amanda.  Connor and Marie.  Caleb and Tracey.  And several other pairs that Henderson kept hinting around should or would be dating soon.  After a very long middle section where basically nothing happens except for all the couples working through their internal problems (which are pretty easy to solve because everyone is ridiculously wealthy – another common Henderson theme), all of the sudden there is a bunch of action that feels quite abrupt and SOMEONE DIES, which was quite upsetting and felt completely unnecessary.

All in all, not a bad book, but not one I feel compelled to read again.

//published 2003// Also, she has some of THE WORST covers of all time, ugh //

There were some common issues with Before I Wake.  Again, the premise is completely engaging – several women, apparently unconnected, die in their sleep, despite being youngish and in apparently good health.  No sign of foul play or visitors.  Rae has recently moved to town to become a business partner with a guy she used to date, Bruce, who is a private investigator.  Rae used to work undercover for the FBI and had an assignment go south.  Still recovering emotionally, she’s left DC behind and moved to this small town outside of Chicago.

This book had a tighter story and more tension.  But there was this weird, super-polite love triangle as Bruce is still quite interested in Rae romantically, but the sheriff, Nathan, is also very interested in Rae.  Rae isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life or if she is interested in either of these guys, and in the meantime the three of them work together virtually with no tension, which didn’t really seem likely, given the interconnecting emotions.

This book would have probably gotten 4/5, except the ending felt like a total cop-out.  There were several suspects and a lot of different motives, but SPOILER, it’s just a random dude?  And then he just conveniently dies in a car wreck, so everyone’s problems are solved, hurrah!  There was also no resolution in the relationships between Rae, Bruce, and Nathan, and it honestly felt like Henderson was getting ready to start another series with this trio, as the relationships had that very open-ended feel to them.  But we actually don’t here from these guys again in the rest of the books, so oh well I suppose.

Overall, Before I Wake was a book that could have been really good but ended up kind of meh because of the weak ending.

This actually means that I have FINALLY finished reviewing all of my May reads, so maybe someday we’ll actually look at books I’ve been reading in June… even though June is almost over…!!!

Say You’re Sorry // by Michael Robotham

//published 2012//

In Robotham’s sixth outing for the Joseph O’Laughlin series, Joe himself is back as the main narrator (present tense, unfortunately, although Robotham does write it fairly well).  Some time has passed since the last book, but much of Joe’s life looks the same: still estranged from his wife (not divorced), but still working with her to raise their two daughters.  He has moved back to London, and the book begins with his daughter Charlie coming to stay with him for the weekend.

The other narrator of the story is Piper.  Piper was kidnapped three years before Joe’s story begins, and she and her friend Tash have been held in a small basement room ever since.  Her story is interspersed between Joe’s chapters, as we learn the back story of how Piper ended up where she is.  In Joe’s world, a girl is found dead and is identified as Tash.  In Piper’s story, we find out just how this all came to be.

Robotham balances these two narratives perfectly, giving just the right of information from one before switching to the other.  While Joe’s story takes up the majority of the book, Piper’s bits are critically important and emotionally devastating.  This isn’t a pretty story, as it involves kidnapping, rape, and even some torture, but Robotham handles all of this deftly.  We are told enough so that we know what we need to know, but he doesn’t smother the reader in excruciating details.

The tension really ratchets up in this book, and I found myself racing through the pages to find out whether or not Piper survives.  My only complaint was that while the clues were there to point to the true criminal, I also found it hard to believe that he had disguised himself so well.

There are always minor quibbles.  I’m still aggravated with Joe’s wife, who seems to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to keep Joe stringing along for years instead of just making a final decision as to whether or not she wants a divorce, especially when her reasons for not wanting him to stay with her seem flimsy at best.  I really miss the Julianne of the early books – I thought that she added an intriguing dimension to the story.  Ah well.  On the other hand, I’m really a bit in love with Vincent Ruiz, who reminds me quite a bit of Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle.  He is definitely my favorite character.

All in all, this has been a very enjoyable series so far.  While I’m definitely getting more out of them by reading them in order, they also seem like they would be perfectly readable as stand-alones.  I really appreciate Robotham’s ability to tackle some intense subjects without making his stories too bleak – although his willingness to kill off various people means that while I’m fairly certain that Joe himself will survive, I’m still rather worried about everyone else: the tension is real!

4/5 for this outing; recommended.

March Minireviews – Part 1

Usually, I only post a group of minireviews for books that have just been sort of meh for me, leaving me with not a whole lot to say about the story.  But this month I’ve been super busy with work and other projects and just simply haven’t had time for reviews.  I really struggled through a reading slump the end of February and into March, but over the last couple of weeks have been back in the groove, which means I actually have quite the little pile of books waiting to be reviewed.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to really unpack all the ins and outs, so I’m going to try to just give each read a few paragraphs… hopefully I don’t get too carried away…

Dead End Close by Dominic Utton

//published 2017//

I actually started a whole long review of this book but then got really carried away.  I disliked this book so much that the whole review was turning into a rather incoherent rant, so maybe I can just summarize a briefer, coherent rant here.  I actually rather enjoyed Utton’s first book, Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Timeand I think that added to the disappointment that I felt about Dead End Close.  This book focuses on several households all on the same dead-end street in Oxford.  There’s a bit of mystery/thriller aspect, but at the end of the day this book was just overwhelmingly depressing.  No one has a happy life, no one has a happy ending.  All of my notes on this book end with “???” because I just didn’t get this book at all.  There’s this weird guy meandering through the story (and sometimes narrating it) with a clipboard, and we are given the impression that he’s a supernatural/angelic being of some kind (???), but apparently there for observation purposes only has he does diddly-squat to prevent anything from happening.  Throughout the story, all the lives that started pretty bad to begin with only get worse.

But the biggest reason that this book gets 0/5 stars for me is that a huge part of the plot centers around a trio of Oxford boys who are trying to get into a club, and the initiation process requires them to rape a girl, video it, and then get the video to go viral.  This whole part of the book literally made me ill to read, it was so disturbing and dark and gross.  And maybe I could have gotten around this if this book had had some kind of point, but it didn’t.  The whole story was just completely pointless.  It went no where, there was no character development, terrible things happened to everyone, people get raped and killed, and a heavy sense of hopelessness lingers on every page.

I think I was especially irked when I got to the end and Utton attempted to whitewash his entire story by acting like, somehow, there was a message of hope.  Like, “Oh wow, sometimes bad things happen, but there’s always hope!”  Yeah, that doesn’t really fly with me when the only “hope” part of your story is in the next-to-last paragraph of the entire book.

Dead End Close was given to me free of charge from the publishers, and this is my obviously very honest review.  I hated every word of this book and wouldn’t even recommend it to someone I didn’t like.  Weirdly, I would still read another of Utton’s books, though, because I enjoyed Harbottle, but this one was flat dreadful.

The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

//published 2011//

They say that a book can impact your mood.  I think this is true, but I also think that sometimes my mood impacts the book.  I picked up The Wreckage (the fifth in the Joseph O’Laughlin series) during the height of my reading slump and could not get into it.  And even though I eventually finished the book, it never really gripped me.  I can’t say for sure if that was the book’s fault or mine, but I definitely felt very meh towards this story the whole way through.

I think a large part of this was because it didn’t feel nearly as personal as the other books in this series.  The other books have dealt with tight, domestic-type crimes (kidnapping, murder, robbery, etc.), but this one was more political, following a storyline in Iraq, where a reporter believes that several bank robberies are connected; and London, where our old friend Vincent Ruiz finds himself entangled in a complicated web of disappearances, robberies, and embezzlement.

The story was done well, and the present-tense that Robotham insists on using made more sense as a third person narrative.  But my personal disinterest meant that I didn’t read this book very closely, and consequently it felt disjointed to me.  It left me with a 3/5 rating, but I think that it will be better when I read through this series again.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

//published 2017//

This was another ARC, but one that I thankfully enjoyed a great deal more than Dead End Close.  This story drifts back and forth in time, following the lives of three German women before, during, and after World War II.  While this wasn’t exactly a cheerful read, it was a very engaging one.  Shattuck handles the shifts in time perfectly, giving information about the lives of these women at just the right time.  It is not a mystery, but each of the women has her own secrets that are only gradually revealed.

It was quite fascinating to read a story about “everyday” Germans.  Marianne, passionate about the resistance; Benita, rather naive and sometimes willfully blind; Ania, caught up in the dream of a better life and failing to see how the promises were built on shifting sand.  The language is lovely and the characters are well-drawn, although I wish that we saw more of Marianne’s thoughts and actions.  She is weirdly both the center of the story and yet in the background of it.

While I don’t see myself returning to this book time and again, I would definitely read another of Shattuck’s books, and recommend this one to anyone who enjoys history from the perspective of ordinary people struggling to see what is right.  4/5.

The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar

//published 2014//

This book is the sequel to a lighthearted YA novel that I read in February, The Art of Wishing.  While Wishing didn’t really blow my mind with its awesomeness, it was still an entertaining and pleasant read, and I was expecting more of the same from The Fourth Wish.  Unfortunately, it was overall pretty terrible.  In this book, Margo is struggling to adjust to her new life as a genie.  For some reason, Ribar decided that the overwhelming majority of people who get a hold of a genie would use their wishes to find some kind of sexual fulfillment.  Color me crazy, but if I had three wishes for anything, I really don’t think any of them would involve sex…???  Plus, we also have to spend a lot of time nattering on about how genies can be either male or female (I mean the same genie can be either), and how this doesn’t change who they are on the inside, and they can still love each other no matter their outward apperance, aw how romantic except why so boring and consequently not actually romantic at all.

I skimmed large portions of this book hoping to actually find a story, but there wasn’t one.  Margo was a total whiner in this book, spending most of  her time being a jealous girlfriend.  I don’t really have high hopes for her relationship with Oliver, especially since they are not both timeless, eternal beings.  Like I don’t think this relationship is going to last five months, much less five centuries.

In the end, 2/5 and nothing that inspired me to find out if Ribar has written anything else.

Bleed for Me // by Michael Robotham

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//published 2012//

This is the fourth installment of the Joseph O’Laughlin series, and Joe himself is once again our narrator – and once again in the first person, present tense.  Although I have to say that the tense didn’t bother me as much this time – I think Robotham is getting better at it, sometimes having Joe explaining what just happened instead of in the moment, which makes the narration somewhat more believable.

While Bleed for Me was just as intense as the earlier books, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Shatter.  I think this was partially because the victims/intended victims were very young.  There is something inherently uncomfortable about people who prey on the young and innocent, and consequently this book was disturbing to me.  It was done well, and in many ways addressed the dangers of placing too much trust in people we don’t really know, but it was still troubling.

The personal troubles between Joe and his estranged wife continue, leaving me feeling consistently annoyed with the wife, who I actually really liked in the first couple of books.  But she basically comes out and says that she can’t handle the person Joe has “become” since he found out he has Parkinson’s, which is why they have now been separated – not divorced – for two years.  So here’s Joe, gradually dying of a degenerative disease, separated from his home and beautiful daughters because his wife feels like Joe is too morbid (or something, I’m honestly still not clear on what her issue with Joe really is – she just keeps saying things like “I don’t love you in the right way” whatever the heck that means), and that just seems cruel.  Sure, they still share duties with the daughters and work together on parenting, but it’s not the same as living with them, which is obvious from the way that Joe hangs around his old house like a stray dog, hoping for glimpses of all the little family-life details that he’s missing.

I guess I just don’t understand why that makes a better background story for Joe than having him stay married, with him and his wife working together through the difficulties of life.  Instead, it’s just another couple (or at least half a couple) who are willing to give up on over two decades of relationship because things have gotten hard.

ANYWAY I do love series like this because I love recurring characters and seeing a bit more of them every time.  Vincent Ruiz is still one of my faves, just as gruff and honey badger-ish as ever –

Political correctness is not one of Ruiz’s strong suits.  He once told me that being politically correct was like pretending you could pick up a dog turd by the clean end.

He’s also a great friend for Joe, and I love the way that their friendship has progressed since the first book.

The story itself was very gritty and done well.  The bad guy was so slimy, and watching him slither through loopholes was incredibly frustrating.  However, I felt like there were more aspects of this book that didn’t fit together than there have been in the earlier books.  While we got explanations for most of the stuff that happened, some things are just left as implied that it was because of this other guy being involved.  The mystery kind of stretched beyond the initial tragedy, and it sometimes felt like some of the connections between this crime and another were a little forced.

Still, I did enjoy this installment, and am curious to see what else Robotham has in store as the series progresses.  3/5.

Shatter // by Michael Robotham

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//published 2008//

Well, look at this!  I promised you all this morning that I was going to start getting back into the blogging groove, and here we are with an actual book review already!  :-D

The third book in Robotham’s Joseph O’Laughlin series was absolutely addicting.  I had trouble putting this book down.  It was terrifying in that way that really good thrillers can be.  Robotham managed to create a story where the reader knows who the bad guy is pretty early on – and it only adds to the tension..

Overall, the premise of this book – that this murderer controls his victims through fear and manipulation and never actually physically sees or touches them – and yet they die – is so scary.  It was brilliant.  From the very beginning, when Joe watches a woman jump off a bridge, the fear ratchets up with every chapter.  With snippets of narrative from the killer, we get glimpses into the why and how of what is happening.  This isn’t a gory book at all.  Robotham doesn’t need it to keep his readers glued to the pages.

The first-person-present-tense continues to nag (why, why, why), but I found myself liking Joe even more in this book.  It was great fun to see Ruiz from the last book – now retired but just as Superintendent Battle-ish – and to see how character lives in general are progressing, because despite the excellent pacing of the book, there is still time for character development and background that really helps to fill out the book.

Speaking of which, I ended the book feeling quite frustrated with Joe’s life.  Mild spoiler, but his wife decides that they should separate at the end, and part of her reasoning behind this is because Joe got involved with this case at all.  But this made no sense to me.  Literally, a woman died because no one cared to find out what was happening with her – that’s the whole point of the first death.  Several people saw this woman on her way to jump off the bridge, and despite the fact that there were all these suspicious signs that something wasn’t right, no one cared.

But Joe cares, and it’s that caring that drives him to continue to assisting with the case.  In the end, I felt like his wife didn’t appreciate or deserve him.  Her attitude towards Joe really aggravated me, and he’s just so patient and resigned like, “Oh, she’s probably right, I’ve been rather self-centered lately worrying about the fact that I’m dying of Parkinson’s disease, so I suppose it’s perfectly reasonable that she wants to throw away our twenty years of marriage instead of trying to work through our problems, nbd.”  Except he said all that with no sarcasm.

Still, in the end this was a solid 4/5 read and I’m intrigued to continue with the series.  This book could be read as a stand alone, but I think that reading it in context of the preceding books helps to give it context.

Lost // by Michael Robotham

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//published 2006//

This is the second book in the Joseph O’Laughlin series, but in this book, Joe is more of a secondary character.  The primary protagonist, and narrator, if this story is Vincent Ruiz, a homicide detective that we met in the last book.  I really liked Ruiz in Suspect – for some reason he reminded me a great deal of Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle, that sort of stolid, steady character whose intelligence tends to be underestimated because he isn’t a chatterbox.

Ruiz’s story starts one night when he is pulled out of the Thames – almost dead, a bullet wound in his leg, and absolutely no recollection of how he got there.  Ruiz’s only clue to his own activities is a picture of Mickey Carlyle that was in his pocket.  Mickey is one of Ruiz’s great failures – a young girl who disappeared out of her apartment building one day and was never seen again.  While a man was convicted of Mickey’s murder, her body has never been found, and Ruiz  has never been completely convinced that she actually died.  With Ruiz’s superiors dead set against reopening any kind of case around Mickey, Ruiz is on his own trying to piece together the events that led up to his near-death experience in the river.

Lost is a twisty kind of book.  Ruiz is a likable character, although I didn’t always agree with his decisions.  Once again, the first-person present tense narrative made me roll my eyes a lot as it genuinely makes no sense, but on the whole I was able to look past it to enjoy the story.  For me, the biggest hang up on the logical end was the fact that Ruiz still has a bullet wound in his leg and is hobbling about on crutches, but suddenly starts dashing all over London, including down into the sewers.  I found myself writing a note with lots of question marks when I read this bit –

“Any cuts?  Cover them up with waterproof Band-Aids,” says Barry, tossing a box toward me.  “Weil’s disease – you get that from rat urine.  It gets into a cut and ends up in your brain.”

So did he manage to cover the bullet wound with lots of waterproof Band-Aids or…????

But setting that aside, Lost was pretty engaging.  It was fun to see Joe again, and I rather like the relationship between Joe and Ruiz.  I’m interested to see where Robotham takes the next book – it looks like Joe will be back in the narrator’s seat again.  All in all, a solid 3.5/5 for Lost – and if it wasn’t for the clumsy choice of narration tense, it probably would have been a 4/5.

Daisy in Chains // by Sharon Bolton

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//published 2016//

This is one of those books that cropped up on my radar not once, but multiple times.  You should definitely check out the reviews by CleopatraLovesBooks, FictionFan, and Fictionophile.  All three of them raved about this book, and I have to say that it lived up to the hype!

Hamish Wolfe is in prison, convicted of murdering several young women.  Hamish has never admitted his guilt, and his mother has started a support group to try and help him be released.  They want his appeal to be taken on by Maggie Rose, a defense attorney who also writes true-crime novels about the cases she takes on.

I don’t really know what I was expecting when I started this book, but it wasn’t what I got.  I think I had in mind a regular crime novel, like the Amanda Jaffe books I just read by Phillip Margolin – a fairly straightforward tale in which there is a crime, a criminal, and an attorney seeking justice.  Instead I ended up with an incredibly intriguing and twisty tale and no clear indication as to who the good guys and bad guys really were.

The format of the book is also excellent.  There are chapters of straightforward third-person narrative, but also letters, newspaper clippings, and rough drafts from Maggie’s latest book.  The chapters are all short and snappy, so easy to tell myself that I would read just one more… and then maybe one more!

I really don’t want to say too much about this book.  All the characters are so well drawn – not just Hamish and Maggie, but also Pete, the detective whose career was made by convicting Hamish, and a whole host of secondary characters.  At no point was I ever convinced that I knew exactly who any of those characters really were – it was obvious that everyone had something to hide.  And while I did guess a couple of the twists, I was still blown away by the incredibly crafty and satisfying ending.

This is my first Sharon Bolton book, but it definitely won’t be my last.  5/5 and highly recommended.