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Posts Tagged ‘S. J. Watson’

unlikelySure, some of you are headed back to school and work, and you have my sympathy. But others are headed out to the pool or back to the beach to savor what has been a summer for the books. There have been so many that I actually lost track of what I’ve reviewed. I wonder what I was doing in June that was so important that I forgot to write about Judy Blume’s  In the Unlikely Event (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), a novel that thoughtfully explores the impact of a series of plane crashes on the townspeople of Elizabeth, N.J., in the winter of 1951-52. As usual, Blume’s writing is assured and accessible, her sympathetic characters flawed in familiar ways. The story is studded with period details: hats and gloves, wood-paneled rec rooms, cocktails and cigarettes. I quite liked it.

darkdarkMaybe I was distracted by a couple of thrillers I read back-to-back, S.J. Watson’s Second Life (HarperCollins, digital galley) and S.K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins (Grand Central, digital galley). Watson’s follow-up to Before I Go to Sleep features a woman who goes on an online dating sight in attempt to solve the murder of her sister and becomes caught up in an erotic affair. I remember reviews commenting on the surprise ending. Didn’t surprise me. Neither did Tremayne’s implausible tale of a grieving mother on a remote island puzzled as to the true identity of her surviving twin daughter. For some eerie psychological suspense, I recommend Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), in which a crime writer tries to remember the events of a girls’ weekend at the secluded Glass House after waking up in a hospital. There was snow. And there was blood.

lakeroadWare’s writing reminded me of Sophie Hannah when she’s at the top of her game. Alas, Hannah’s latest, Woman With a Secret (Morrow, digital galley), is kind of a mess, with an unreliable narrator narrating too much of the story of a murder of a controversial columnist. Detectives Waterhouse, Zailler and crew have a difficult time sorting out all the many unpleasant suspects, and the narrative is stuffed with tiresome e-mails, Twitter exchanges and online rants. Really didn’t care for Naughty Nicki and her secret cyber affairs. Secrets from the past, of course, are a staple of beach books. In Karen Katchur’s atmospheric The Secrets of Lake Road (St. Martin’s digital galley), a missing girl at a lakeside resort stirs up Jo’s carefully guarded memories of her high school boyfriend’s drowning 16 years ago. But Jo’s daughter, 12-year-old Caroline, about to leave childhood behind, steals every scene she narrates. Wendy Wax temporarily abandons her beachside setting in A Week at the Lake (Berkeley, review copy), but she’s still writing about female friendships, loyalty and betrayal. Emma, Mackenzie and Serena all have show-business connections and secrets, which give their story a glossy, dishy patina.

moviestarReal stars, including Clark Gable and Martina Dietrich, appear in Peter  Davis’ first novel of 1930s Hollywood, Girl of My Dreams (Open Road, review copy), but the focus is on a young screenwriter in love with a glamorous actress — the improbably named Palmyra Millevoix — who is also pursued by a studio tycoon. The tale of this triangle unreels with an overlay of nostalgia for celluloid dreams. Feel free to speculate as to which contemporary stars inspired celebrity memoirist Hilary Liftin’s Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper (Viking Penguin, digital galley). It’s to Liftin’s credit that this faux memoir is more than tabloid fodder as young Lizzie recounts her courtship and marriage to mega-star Rob Mars, whose attachment to a cult-like spiritual group interferes with their relationship. Living a seemingly luxurious life for all the world to see, Lizzie has to decide if she’s going to become the heroine of her own story.

lawyerSometimes in summer, a girl just wants to have fun, which is when I read Susan Mallery’s Fools Gold fluffy romances. She offered a trilogy this year: Hold Me (Harlequin, digital galley), in which secret singer Destiny and Olympic skier Kipling work search-and-rescue together; Kiss Me (Harlequin, digital galley), the love story between city girl Phoebe and cowboy Zane; and Thrill Me (Harlequin, digital galley), where Maya returns to town and runs into former flame Del.  Court and spark. But the book I fell hard for was Lee Robinson’s engaging Lawyer for the Dog (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), in which 49-year-old Charleston attorney Sally Baynard is appointed by a family court judge — also her ex-husband — to represent a miniature schnauzer in a custody dispute between a divorcing couple. Trying to figure out what’s best for adorable Sherman also means Sally has to figure out what’s best for her dementia-afflicted mother and for her own heart. Will it be the ex-husband, the Johns Island vet, or maybe a dog all her own? There’s real substance beneath the fluff; call this one more than puppy love.

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I really should stop reading mysteries before bedtime. But the days are long and light-filled into the evening, and I forget. I start a new novel, and the sun goes down, the stars come out, and I just keep on reading into the wee hours. The next day — like today — I’m sleepy and don’t want to write, but I before I start reading another mystery — or just take a nap — I best tell you what’s been keeping me up nights.

Let’s start with the title-appropriate Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson (HarperCollins).  Life is one long one-night stand for Christine Lucas, but not in the way you might think.  She wakes up in a strange bed next to a strange man every day because a brain injury has resulted in years of memory loss. A look in the mirror reveals a middle-aged version of the young woman she still feels like; notes on the mirror tell her the man in her bed is her husband, Ben. A phone call from an unknown doctor prompts her to retrieve her journal from its hiding place in the closet. It’s full of the memories that sleep erases every night. “Don’t trust Ben,” she reads. Why not? She can’t remember.

Watson’s first thriller offers first-rate psychological suspense as Christine’s journal entries begin to fill in the blanks. She reads that she has recently started having visceral flashbacks of real memory. But what she remembers conflicts with what Ben has told her and the pictures he shows her. Perhaps she’s imagining that she once wrote a book and had a child. Ben reassures her daily with great patience and concern.

A story from an amnesiac’s perspective involves a certain amount of repetition, but Watson doesn’t overdo it as Christine realizes — every day — that the only person she can really trust is herself. If only she could remember. . .

Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Houghton Mifflin) offers such fascinating characters and atmosphere, I didn’t mind the meandering storyline in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Private investigator Claire DeWitt is sort of a New Age-noir Nancy Drew, who has been solving mysteries since her Brooklyn childhood with the help of her dreams, omens and a book by a mysterious French detective. Alcohol, cigarettes, pot, and memories of her mentor, Constance Darling, also inspire Claire as she searches for attorney Vic Willing, who disappeared during the storm. Perhaps the green parrots he used to feed are a clue, maybe the tough street kids he befriended. She compares tattoos and war stories with teen-age Andray, who reluctantly hooks her up with a gun and also has a connection with Constance.

“The thing about this city,” Andray says at one point. “It knows how to tell a beautiful story. It truly does. But if you’re looking a happy ending, you better be lookin’ somewhere else.”

Years ago, I dubbed Ruth Rendell something of a literary Hitchcock because she comes at her stories from unexpected angles. Now, in Tigerlily’s Orchids (Simon & Schuster), she does a version of “Rear Window” on a block of London flats. A widower named Duncan, who lives next door to a secretive Asian family, peers across the street, making up stories about the inhabitants of Lichfield House even as Rendell reveals their secret lives.

Charming slacker Stuart Font is planning a housewarming party in the flat he recently bought with an inheritance, but he’s having trouble with the guest list. He’d just as soon that Claudia, the married woman with whom he’s been having an affair, not come, especially with her powerful attorney husband. Olwen, the unkempt woman upstairs, is deliberately drinking herself to death. But the three young women who share a flat will be attractive additions, and he’ll also ask the hippie classics buff and the new woman who just moved in. He’s not much on the creepy building super and his vulgar wife, but Stuart asks them as well.

Rendell builds suspense slowly as she raises “people-watching” to a fine art. The party proves explosive, yet the requisite murder doesn’t happen until later,  almost an afterthought. By then, readers have eavesdropped on a half-dozen characters’ private lives and lies, and mysteries have emerged. The most intriguing concerns the beautiful Asian woman across the street, whom Duncan calls “Tigerlily,” and with whom Stuart becomes obsessed in true Rendell fashion.

Town meets gown in Charlotte Bacon’s elegantly written academic mystery The Twisted Thread (Hyperion Voice). When a popular  student at elite Armitage Academy is murdered in her dorm room shortly before graduation, her friends confide in Madeline Christopher, the novice English teacher. Madeline is at first flattered, and then threatened, by what the girls tell her. She turns to Matt Corelli, a local cop who has his own checkered history with the prep school.

Bacon moves among the perspectives of Madeline, Matt, Fred, an art teacher carrying on the family legacy, and Jim, the school’s middle-aged maintenance worker, well-versed in the school’s basement tunnels. Each has a back story that Bacon neatly twists into the well-knotted narrative that also includes a secret society, a charismatic headmaster, furtive love affairs, overprivileged students, suspicious townies and  — to up the ante — a missing newborn.

Peter Lovesey’s likeable curmudgeon Peter Diamond returns in Stagestruck (Soho Press), an artful tale provoked by a horrific opening-night incident at Bath’s Theatre Royal. Diamond reluctantly investigates;  just walking into the theatre gives him the willies, but his superior is angling for a part in an upcoming production of Sweeney Todd.

Lovsey’s humor and plotting are razor-sharp as Diamond and company question a cast of distinctive theater types, from the ambitious understudy to the oily artistic director. The theatre is supposedly haunted by a grey lady, and alternately blessed and cursed by tortoiseshell butterflies. Diamond’s impatient with the superstitions, but dogged about solving the mounting mysteries, including his own phobia of the footlights. The curtain comes down in a stunning finale.

Open Book: I read digital galleys of all of the above mysteries. Four were supplied by the publishers through NetGalley; Simon & Schuster has its own digital “galley grab.” I’ve more mysteries to read before I sleep, or they expire on my nook. Curses! Deadlines all over again.

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