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.

The Travelers // by Chris Pavone

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//published 2016//

Okay, I think I am working through this blogging slump – this is post #4 in as many days!  Woot!  It’s really great to get some of these to-be-reviewed books off the pile, too.  Always satisfying.

So.  Will Rhodes works for an old, well-established traveling magazine that has been around for decades.  He travels around the world, interviewing people and writing articles, and he’s done it for several years.  All in all, he’s a normal kind of guy – married to a woman he loves, trying to fix up an old house that they inherited, thinking about starting a family.

But then, while he’s in Europe, Will meets Elle.  She’s stunningly beautiful and more than a little alluring. Will has never cheated on his wife before, and he resists Elle, too – this time.  But when they coincidentally (???) meet again in South America, Will finds himself falling down the rabbit hole – into way more of an entanglement than a one-night stand.  Suddenly, Will finds himself embroiled in international intrigue and espionage, completely unwillingly.  As the lies and secrets begin to pile up, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who is working for whom.

All in all, The Travelers was a fun book.  For me, espionage books should be a romp.  I don’t necessarily expect a lot of in-depth character development from these types of books – just lots of action and twists.  And while this book had both, it somehow just didn’t have enough to really engage me.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was bored by the book, because I did definitely keep reading it and was curious to see how things played out – but it somehow lacked the tension that a really good spy book needs.

Part of it may have been the present tense (thankfully first person) narrative, which is just 100% getting on my nerves.  Just why.  Please stop.  EVERYONE please stop.  I have picked up so many books written in the stupid present tense narrative lately and it is getting quite old.

But I think a bigger part was that Pavone didn’t (for me) completely strike that balance between revealing enough information to keep the story going, but keeping enough hidden to keep things tense.  At times, a twist could be seen coming a mile away.  At others, I would get very frustrated because it felt like I couldn’t really get into the story without knowing some information that was being withheld.  But it’s that balance that makes thrillers what they are, and can make a story that I don’t necessarily like still incredibly readable.  (In a Dark, Dark Wood comes to mind – I didn’t particularly enjoy the story or like any of the characters – but if you had told me halfway through that I wasn’t allowed to finish it, we would have had to take that issue outside and duke it out!)  In this case, the magical balance just wasn’t quite right, so while I was interested to see what was going to happen, I never felt desperate to know what was going to happen.

I think that the book could have been much improved if we had spent more time with Will’s wife, Chloe.  We get little snippets of what is happening with her, but it’s actually an important part of the story and was one those aspects that Pavone was kind of keeping hidden for dramatic effect but would have actually been more dramatic if we had actually known what was happening at her end.

Overall, though, it was a solid 3/5 read.  I really liked the ending, and would actually probably even pick up a sequel to this book if one ever appeared.  I liked a lot of the characters, and despite Will’s moment of infidelity, this was overall a book that was surprisingly positive towards marriage.  In many ways, Will and Chloe are at a crossroads in their relationship, and a decision to remember the things that brought them together initially and to go forward from there was so refreshingly mature.

While I don’t really intend to purchase The Travelers and read it over and over again, I’m interested to pick up another of Pavone’s books and see what else he has written.  In the  meantime, this one gets a moderate recommendation, and I would love to hear if anyone else has read it – did you find it more exciting than I did?

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.

The Shapeshifters // by Stefan Spjut

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//published 2012//

FictionFan reviewed this book a while back, and I found myself intrigued.  A story set in modern day, but wherein strange creatures from folklore actually exist?  I kind of love books with this concept – something about the mixing of fairy tale components with things like the internet and cell phones I find to be delightful.  The Shapeshifters was 100% bizarre, and yet completely readable and engaging – and, weirdly, almost believable…

The book begins in the late 70’s, in Sweden (NB this book was originally published in Swedish).  A boy and his mother travel to a cabin in the woods.  While there, the boy disappears.  In the present day, Susso drives to meet with an old woman – Susso believes that trolls and other folklore creatures are real, and this woman claims to have seen one.  Somewhere else, Seved worries because the old ones are getting restless, and seem more prone to violence than they were before…

I can’t really describe this book.  It was completely strange.  It didn’t really have chapters as such – just a few pages from one perspective, and then a few from another.  Spjut doesn’t do a lot of explaining, and part of the terror is the not knowing.  Even from the very beginning – why are the boy and his mother going to this cabin?  Are they fleeing or just vacationing?  There are definitely more questions than answers in this book – but for the most part that’s okay.  Somehow, those gaps in knowledge fit with the whole feeling of the book – which also fits in with the long winter of northern Sweden that is the background of the story – dark, sparse, cold, dangerous.

It’s a long story with many layers.  Once the characters began to settle out in my mind, I found myself racing through the pages, trying to figure out where everything was heading.  Spjut isn’t afraid to kill a few people off now and again to keep you scared, too.  There were a lot of threads that seemed quite separate at the beginning, but gradually begin to weave together closer and closer, and through them all one that is common – children that go missing.

I’m still working at the orchard, although we are winding down for the season.  On Wednesday afternoons, I watch the sales room.  If there aren’t any customers or special chores, I’m allowed to read, and that’s exactly what I did last week – I devoured almost this entire book in one go.  And, creepily enough, found it just as believable as any other thriller I’ve ever read – more so than some of the crazy spy ones.  Spjut has a manner of presenting these trolls and shapeshifters as a reality, hidden and protected, but still very real.  Somehow, the whole story comes across as completely plausible.

(Of course, that night I came down with some kind of virus and had one of those nights where you have a low-grade fever and have many strange dreams.  And let me tell you a thing, if you read Spjut’s book before you start having those weird dreams, your dreams will be very weird indeed!)

My only real disappointment was that I felt that the ending was a bit too ambiguous for me.  Some main points were wrapped up, but there were still a lot of questions, not just about the Old Ones, but about the characters whose lives I’d been following.  Really, the ending felt like it could very well be leading into a second book, which I would totally read – it seemed like there was a whole new twist to the program.

Still, a solid 4/5, and I do recommend this as a bizarre yet fascinating thriller that kept me glued to the pages with that whiff of delicious terror haunting me.

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.