Review: “The Perfect Stranger” by Megan Miranda

31443398Title: “The Perfect Stranger”
Author: Megan Miranda
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publication Date: April 11, 2017 (Simon & Schuster)

My Rating: My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Megan Miranda’s “All the Missing Girls” was a 2016 highlight for me — favorite book, bar none. I waited with greedy anticipation for “The Perfect Stranger” for months and dug in the day it was released, expectations higher than one might consider safe. When you go in like that, you’re almost inevitably going to be let down. (Is it fair to expect an author who absolutely knocks it out of the park to do so again in short order? And if I hadn’t devoured and adored “ATMG,” and went into “The Perfect Stranger” more objectively, would I have expected less and in return enjoyed it more? Maybe.)

Brief plot run-down: We meet former journalist Leah Stevens, who got too personally tangled up in a story and was forced out. After a chance encounter with a summer roommate of eight years past, who also happens to be in run mode, the two decide to relocate from Boston to Western Pennsylvania, where Leah gets a teaching job. She’s still trying to acclimate when a woman who looks just like her is attacked and left for dead by the lake. Then her roommate, Emmy, goes missing. When she reports it, of course, things get interesting/complicated because it turns out there’s no record of Emmy ever existing. Cue Leah getting, again, really tangled up in the pursuit of the truth and figuring out who Emmy is/was … and if their encounter was really so chance, then or now.

I didn’t dislike “The Perfect Stranger,” but it doesn’t live up to its predecessor in writing or story quality. It was at times clunky and felt forced and unrealistic — Leah was this distressed and that close to someone she knew for mere months? (Though she’d have a quick response: “I can only explain it this way: that I knew her deeply, if not thoroughly; that a four-month relationship can supersede all the boyfriends, all the friendships, that came after and lasted longer, that our friendship was born from the one time I’d stepped off track, done something unexpected that did not follow the predicted steps of my life. And for that reason, it shone brighter, and so did she.”)

Though I understand building suspense by slowly revealing snippets of Leah’s backstory and what led her to Pennsylvania, I felt confused more than a couple times trying to piece things together. The sub-plots are interesting but lose some of their power as they’re dropped in ever so sporadically and piece-meal. It took me more than 200 pages to actually feel invested in the characters and the outcome of the story (which landed with a bit of a dull thud after such a long buildup.)

Still, it’s entertaining enough, and worth checking out if you enjoy Miranda’s books. I adore her so much that I almost feel guilty stamping less than 5 stars on “The Perfect Stranger.” Megan, you keep your spot on my favorite authors list, and I’ll be right here waiting for the next one!

Review: “Everything You Want Me to Be” by Mindy Mejia

everything-you-want-me-to-be-hr.jpgTitle: “Everything You Want Me to Be”
Author: Mindy Mejia
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publication Date: Jan. 3, 2017 (Atria Books)

My Rating: ★★★★★

Well, I missed the boat on reviewing “Everything You Want Me to Be” — I finished it more than a month ago, and at this point all the terribly deep, intellectual, impressive thoughts I had (so many) have dimmed. But I loved this book so much that I’ll still post a plea to read it. A month later and I continue to think of main character Hattie Hoffman and her story — what could have been — which says an awful lot about how good it was.

Brief synopsis: We start off learning that Hattie  — 18, high school senior, actor — is dead. (No happy ending in this one.) Chapters rotate between three narrators: Hattie (pre-death); her English teacher Peter Lund; and Del, the likeable town sheriff. So, who killed Hattie, and why? We follow along over the course of a year, pulled into a memorizing reconstruction of the journey that led to Hattie’s death.

A few chapters in, and I had already “figured out” who killed her. I was wrong. I bet you will be, too.

This is the first book I read by Mindy Mejia, but I’ll read whatever she does next. And it sounds like a good one. Here’s how she described it in a recent Goodreads Q&A:

“There’s a place in Minnesota along the northern edge of the state, hundreds of miles of glacial lakes and untouched forests called the Boundary Waters. Ten years ago a man and his son voyaged into this wilderness and never returned. Search teams found their campsite ravaged by what looked like a bear. They were placed on the missing persons list and presumed dead until a decade later, when the son emerged. Discovered while ransacking an outfitter store, he was violent and uncommunicative. Authorities brought him to Mayfair Mental Institution in Duluth, Minnesota, a port town on the western edge of Lake Superior. Maya Stark, the assistant language therapist, is charged with making a connection with this boy who came back from the dead, their celebrity patient who tries to escape and refuses to answer any questions about his father or the last ten years of his life. But Maya, who was abandoned by her own mother, has secrets, too. And as she’s drawn closer to this enigmatic boy, she’ll risk everything to reunite him with his father who’s disappeared from the known world.”

Review: “The Girl Before” by JP Delaney

girlbefreTitle: “The Girl Before”
Author: JP Delaney
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publication Date: Jan. 24, 2017 (Ballantine Books)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

“Make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.”

The request comes from Edward Monkford, the tech-minimalist, narcissistic control-freak of an architect who owns the showpiece home that is One Folgate Street. It’s a unique house with a particular landlord who likes his rules. No books in the house; no curtains or rugs. Certainly no dishes left on the counter. No pets, no kids. The home consists mostly of slabs of pale stone, expensive glass and a stairway with no railing. An app controls everything from entry to lighting and shower pressure, and Internet searches filter though “Housekeeper.” There’s a monthly assessment, and if you don’t take it in a timely enough fashion, the system shuts down — keeping the occupant from, say, using the hot water or getting a shower. It’s a sleek, futuristic home designed to transform its occupants.

Emma, reeling from a traumatic break-in, thinks it’s worth it. A couple years later — following Emma’s unexplained death in the home — Jane, recovering from a stillborn, does, too.

But will the fate of the girl before become hers, too?

Narration alternates each chapter — we bounce from Emma, then, to Jane, now, until Emma’s story ceases. Both, of course, become entangled with Monkford (but the relationships will be short, each woman is told — lasting only as long as they remain truly perfect.)

At this point, most of us are wary of “girl” books (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train….) But “The Girl Before” offers a unique premise, and it’s a fast-paced, twisty read. The chapters get shorter as the book reaches the climax and excitement builds. I didn’t *love* it the way I love some books, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, and I’m excited for the movie, which is being produced by Ron Howard.

Trivia: The book is written by JP Delaney, a pen name for the British author Tony Strong. “There are some big advantages to using a pseudonym,” he told The New York Times. “The first is that people can’t tell from the initials if I’m a man or a woman — and I’ve been really gratified that many readers have assumed from the way I’ve written from two female perspectives that I’m actually a woman. The second is that you know people are responding to something in the story, not to a name. . . . To write under a completely new name is to free yourself from expectations.”

Alert: Megan Miranda Book Tour Announcement!

If you loved “All the Missing Girls” as much as I did, you’re probably very impatiently awaiting “The Perfect Stranger” (out April 11 — so soon, but never soon enough). The extra thrilling thing about this thriller release, that I’m really thrilled about, is that Megan is hitting more than a dozen cities as part of her book tour:

megan.jpg

She is not, unfortunately, coming to my land (DC/VA region). If you’re one of the lucky ones who get to see her, enjoy! Meanwhile, I’ll be helming the #BringMeganToDC campaign.

Review: “The Dry” by Jane Harper

thedryTitle: “The Dry”
Author: Jane Harper
Genre: Mystery, crime
Publication Date: Jan. 10, 2017 (Macmillan Australia)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Mate, you tell me this was a bloody debut novel, and I’ll tell you to bugger off …. you arse.

Sorry. Hi. I’m infinitely charmed by the Australian lingo in “The Dry,” but even more impressed that this is Harper’s first book. She’s a longtime journalist who wrote the book with no expectation that it would ever be widely read — then won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015. (It seems she learned to write fiction via a literary agency’s online writing course. Must have been one heck of a course!)

I’m tempted to give “The Dry” 5 stars, because writing-wise, it deserves it. It’s beautifully written and captures the atmosphere of drought-ridden Kiewarra, a despairing rural Australian farming town, perfectly. I can picture the town, with its now-dry river and empty, bleak Main Street, vividly. Harper’s words transported me, dropping me into this land and giving me a sense of place and of being there that I don’t experience with many books.

The story centers around Aaron Falk, who was driven out of Kiewarra 20 years ago and is now a federal agent on the money side of things in Melbourne. He goes home — for 18 hours, which is 18 too many — to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler, who has apparently killed himself, his wife and his son.

“It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.”

Did Luke really do it, though? Was a desperate time in a ruined town enough to push him over the edge?

And are the murders linked to what happened to Ellie Deacon — Luke and Falk’s friend who was found drowned in the river all those years ago? It’s the reason Falk was run out of town and never came back, and the town still thinks he had something to do with her death.

As a favor to Luke’s grieving parents, Falk joins forces with Sergeant Raco, the local cop and one of the only folks in town who has doubts that Luke killed his family. The telling of their investigation moves slowly, and more than a few times, I wished things would hurry up already. I can finish a book in two or three days, but this one took over a week because it felt so slow at parts. That’s the only reason I dock a star here — there were chapters that were a little too “dry” (sorry) for my taste, and Harper could have shaved a chunk of pages without hurting the story. Still, I appreciate the depth and development they helped create.

There’s a film to come; rights have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. And we have Aaron Falk #2 to look forward to; apparently, it’s called “Force of Nature” and will be out Jan. 16, 2018. (Too long! I want it now!) I liked Falk a lot — he’s a good bloke — so I’m looking forward to catching up with him again.

I finished “The Dry” last night, and I woke up still thinking about it this morning. If you require action and excitement on every page, you might not love it. But I’m bloody positive that Harper deserves all the success and buzz she’s seeing worldwide.

Alert Alert: New Harlan Coben in September!

Whoa whoa whoa. I’m just merrily going about my day and then, WHAM, stop everything, news that Harlan is releasing his next book (a stand-alone thriller) on September 16, 2017.

211 days from now.

No details on plot, but it’s called “Don’t Let Go,” and you can help him choose the cover by voting on his Facebook page.

covers

Pre-order here. The man is a machine. All hail Harlan!

Review: “Home” by Harlan Coben

home-harlan-coben.jpg

Title: “Home” (Myron Bolitar #11)
Author: Harlan Coben
Genre: Thriller, mystery, suspense
Publication Date: Sept. 20, 2016 (Dutton)

My Rating: ★★★★★

“Der mentsh trakht un got lakht. Translation: Man plans and God laughs.” — Myron Bolitar

Harlan Coben is a genius. He’s brilliant. I’m left in awe every time I read one of his (dozens of) masterpieces — the sharpness! His books are smart, witty, twisty as an Alpine road. They’re fast-paced and near impossible to set down, but too good to speed through because you want to reread and savor those clever sentences.

All this to say, I loved “Home,” and Harlan is all but unrivaled in Thriller World. Probably a surprise after this praise party, but I haven’t read the other 10 books in the Myron Bolitar series, so I put off reading this one until recently. I was worried it wouldn’t work as a stand-alone and I wouldn’t get some of the references, but I never felt confused or behind. I imagine it’s an even greater experience when you already know Myron, Win, Esperanza, Big Cyndi, Mickey and the rest of the crew, but if you’re new to the series, no harm picking this one up.

Which brings us to the plot. A decade ago, Win’s 6-year-old nephew, Rhys, and his buddy Patrick were kidnapped; a ransom was demanded from the very wealthy families, but then the kidnappers went silent, and there’s been no word or sign of the two since. Until now, when Win gets an anonymous email with a tip that one of the boys was spotted under a shady Kings Cross, London, underpass – which leads to my first introduction to Win’s ways (…there are a few less bad guys in the world once Win’s visited the spot). He summons Myron to London, and after a few gritty scenes, they locate who they believe to be Patrick, now a teenage boy. No Rhys — so what can Patrick tell them about his still-missing friend? Where have they been the last 10 years, and who took them? And are they even dealing with the real-deal Patrick? Win and Myron are relentless in their pursuit to uncover what really happened, no matter who or what they tear apart in the process.

“Myron didn’t know what he hoped to find here, but stumbling around blind was a big part of his so-called investigations. You don’t so much painstakingly search for the needle in the haystack as haphazardly leap into various haystacks, barefoot and naked, and then flail wildly and hope that hey, ouch, there’s a needle.”

It’s perhaps ironic, at least unexpected, that a book as dark as this — ripe with murder and violence — is funny, too. Imagine Myron and Win in a high-stakes, high-tension meeting with the flamboyant villain Fat Gandhi, who claims to have been holding the boys. “May I call you Myron?” he asks. “Sure. Should I call you Fat?” Later: “Fat Gandhi was resplendent in what looked to be a yellow zoot suit. ‘The cash is in that bag?’ ‘It isn’t in my underwear,’ Myron said.”

And: “When I wink at him, his eyebrows jump high. ‘We should cut him up,’ Camouflage One says. ‘Cut him into little pieces.’ I feign being startled and turn toward him. ‘Oh my, I didn’t see you there.’ ‘What?’ ‘In those camouflage pants. You really blend in. By the way, they are very fetching on you.’ ‘Are you some kind of wiseguy?’ ‘I’m many kinds of wiseguy.’ All the smiles, including mine, grow.”

In September last year, I saw Harlan speak at the National Book Festival here in Washington, D.C. Right off the bat, I was surprised at how lumbering tall and LOL funny he is. I swear, this guy could do comedy. He had breakfast with Stephen King the morning of the talk, and said they’re both still insecure. Each time he starts a new book, he says, he panics: “Oh my god, I’ve lost it.” He writes every word as though he has a knife against his throat, and if it’s not the absolute best he can possibly write, well, knives against the throat don’t end well. And even when he’s reading, he feels guilty he’s not writing. If you don’t feel like that and you fancy yourself a writer, he says, you’re probably not one.

Harlan is coming off a banner year — he released both “Fool Me Once” (also 5 stars) and “Home” in 2016. No word on what’s next, but in the meantime, I’m here reading 2013’s “Six Years.” Good thing there’s a big, satisfying backlog to get through until Harlan blesses us with something new.