Thriller

Ellie Mack is an average 15-year-old girl in a British upper-middle class family, the youngest of three children and a perfect child according to her mom, Laurel. But, one day, Ellie goes missing and her family falls apart. Laurel is hit especially hard, and she ends up losing her marriage and is painfully distant from her remaining son and daughter. Ten years pass by and a clue finally turns up in Ellie’s disappearance and the Mack family gets the closure they’ve needed. Or do they?

Laurel, finally knowing Ellie is truly dead and not a runaway as the police suspected, has a sort of closure and begins to slowly pull herself out of her deep depression. She becomes more aware of letting her life slip away these past ten years and, one day, by chance, meets a man in a cafe. This man is charming and fun and Laurel slowly begins to date and to live and to start making things right in her own life. This man, though, has a daughter who, at times, looks exactly like…her dead daughter, Ellie. She also finds some other oddities and parallels between her life and her new boyfriend. Things that make you go hmmmmmm…

I’ll leave you with that for the moment, but there may be semi-spoilers in some of the text ahead. I would say this book is good. Not great, but really, solidly good. Fairly early in the book, you can start to suspect what transpires. However, I was interested enough in the characters that I didn’t mind knowing how I thought it would end. I just wanted to see how it would get there. I do think that’s the author’s intent because the clues she leaves are big ones. It’s not designed to be a twisty-turny plotted book and that’s okay. Not everything needs to be. It’s still a good read and a something that keeps you interested throughout the book even as you start to put the pieces together. A few plot twists happen, but those are more related to the personal lives of the family members and not the overall whodunnit of the novel.

Things that made me go hmmmmmm about this book:

  • Laurel keeps dating a dude she thinks may have some connection to her daughter’s death, no matter how vague or innocent? Not just dating, but sleeping with him, spending the night, getting closer to his children – y’all, yuck.
  • When she starts to have these suspicions, she doesn’t bring anybody else in on it? She at least texts someone about where she’s going towards the end of the book, but still. You have these growing suspicions and you don’t phone a friend, your ex-husband, the police? Even in a fictional world, characters know bad things happen and Laurel knows this all too well. It didn’t jive with me.
  • A little awkwardly, about half-way through the book, you start getting a POV from another character. It sounds as if it’s a letter or a journal, definitely a confession, but nothing every really comes of it except that the reader is let in on what actually happened to Ellie. It would have been nice for that to be a document that came to light at some point. As it was, it interrupted the story some for me and left a gap that needed to be filled.
  • It seemed like Ellie could have overpowered her captor at some point in the story; she wasn’t tied up or restrained for the majority of her time, although she was locked in a rom (with a window). I didn’t fully buy into that. You’ve got a young, healthy girl who can’t get past someone who doesn’t seem to be more powerful than her. There needed to be more psychological oomph or an explanation of the captor’s strength/control. It made me not as sympathetic with Ellie at that part of the story – not that she deserved to be where she was, mind you. We’ve all seen those horrific and inexcusable real-life stories of young women held in captivity by a variety of means. I’m just saying that the author kind of glazed over the emotional/psychological/physical control issue as to why Ellie seemed so complacent. We also have an unreliable narrator for this portion and only a partial glimpse of Ellie’s POV, so maybe something was lost in translation.
  • There are people in this book who shouldn’t be smart enough to get away with these crimes, but do. There’s very little in this book about police procedure and more about how Ellie’s disappearance affected her mom and the subsequent breakdown of the family. The police mostly seem to focus on Ellie as a runaway, so we don’t get much of a sense of how the initial investigation was handled and whether they should have picked up on clues or whether they were thorough and just couldn’t have known the full set of circumstances as sometimes happens. The guilty are not exactly criminal masterminds, but are definite creepy as hell.
  • The end is satisfactory on all of the loose ends; however, you still don’t get the police -style follow up you do in some thrillers. The focus is still very much on the family, which is fine, but I would have liked a little more on the police or public reaction to the big reveal. Instead, we get a soft wrap-up and only allusions to the aftermath.

All in all, it was a good tale. I would recommend this for an “in-between books” book, a quick summer read, or something middle-of-the-road for a book club. If you’ve read it, I would love to hear your thoughts on the plot points I mentioned above! I’m including a review from Kirkus Books and an interview with author Lisa Jewell.

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Book You Haven’t Read By An Author You Love

“I know a tale, o sons of earth.

I speak it as I must.

Of how nine trees gave life to Worlds

That giants held in trust.”

Do you remember the romance and the drama behind the Norse myths and the heroic deeds of Odin and Thor and the rest of the family? The beauty, the strength, the deceit of that one among them who was brought into the family by Odin? Loki, who brought tragedy to them all. Or did he?

Ah, Loki. Bless his heart. He can’t understand why he gets no love or respect from the rest of the Norse gods and he continuously undermines every relationship he has and surrounds himself with people who are deceitful and untrustworthy. He can’t win for losing and he can’t resist the easy mark, the quick scheme, the thrill of getting by with something. His chaotic persona never tires and there truly is no rest for the wicked when it comes to Loki.

But, maybe you don’t know dear Loki, adopted kin of Odin and Thor? The miscreant, the trickster, the wildfire, the sharp-tongued meanie with a witty remark perpetually on his lips? If ever Chaos was personified, Loki is that one. The Gospel of Loki attempts to right the wrongs that tarnish the legend.

The pervasiveness of the Marvel Avengers franchise has given us a certain impression of Loki. They aren’t wrong. However, Loki wants to tell his own story and give the “real” version of his story versus history. Loki recounts how he was plucked from Chaos by Odin himself to be Odin’s adopted brother and weaves his tale all the way to Ragnarok, the final bloody battle of the Norse gods. Of course, Loki never quite fits in with Odin and his crew, despite Odin swearing his loyalty to Loki. He is betrayed and is the betrayer, living up to every bad thought the other gods (aka “the popular crowd”) think of him. Loki, our “humble narrator,” explains that the versions of these stories we’ve heard before were nothing but “spin and metaphor,” forced on the rest of us by Odin and his pride – a skewed look, just like any other history that’s written by the victor.

This version of Norse mythology is bitingly funny and has several laugh out loud moments. Loki describes the other gods in modern terms, saying of Freya, she “will sleep with practically anyone as long as jewelry is involved,” or how Thor “likes hitting things,” or Gullveig-Heid, the sorceress, who is “Greedy, clever and spiteful. All my favourite qualities…” There is a great recounting of how the golden apples of Asgard are lost and the gods start to show some wear and age before they are returned. Loki likes to rub that in! When the perp who stole the apples finally falls back into the hands of the gods, the poor creature is described by Loki as being “killed by a gang of old-age pensioners.” Odin and Thor and the gang as old-age pensioners. Hilarious! The tale turns darker, of course, as Ragnarok nears and Asgard falls, and the tragedy of mistrust and treachery comes back to bite all of them in the end, making way for the next wave of gods to rule the world of man.

Joanne Harris is the sublime voice behind Chocolat and, my favorite of hers, Holy Fools, among many other titles. A book like this about Norse gods was not what I expected from her and it was a very entertaining read. There is a link here to Harris’s website where she talks more in-depth about her interest in Norse myths. There are other books by her that are tied together in a loose series and a sequel of sorts, The Testament of Loki, was just published this month. There’s a great interview with Joanne Harris at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here, where The Gospel of Loki is discussed at length.

Poem

If you think you don’t like poetry, you’re not doing it right. Especially if you’re trying to get guys (or tomboyish girls) to like poetry that they envision to be sappy, sweet love junk – fuhgeddaboudit! But, there is poetry and then there is poetry – long, epic, story-telling poetic verse that catches you up in the telling of it and transforms everything you thought you knew about the genre.

Now, we turn to Beowulf, that old English hero who has inspired so many other tales through the years. If you don’t have a love of blood and gore and violence in your tales, then you may think Beowulf is not for you. Hold your disdain, though, because you won’t find a more lovely description of gnashing and killing in the whole of the English language.

To recap (Cliff Notes version here), if you’ve forgotten the tale or (gasp!) never read it, Beowulf is a hero of the Geats (modern day southern Sweden) who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Hrothgar’s hall has been terrorized by the villain, Grendel, who has been killing and eating the Danes and generally creating bloody chaos. As part of the poem reads, Grendel attacks one of the warriors and “tore him fiercely asunder, the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams, swallowed him piecemeal: swiftly this the lifeless corse was clear devoured…” How can you not love that?!?

Beowulf and his squad lie in wait for Grendel and Beowulf kills him with his bare hands. Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, and Beowulf kills her with the sword of a giant that he finds in her lair. In glory, Beowulf returns home and eventually becomes King of the Geats. His last great act is to slay a dragon that terrorizes his land, but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the fight and dies. He is cremated and given the highest honors of his people.

And, from one of my favorite commentators on books of all kinds:

https://youtu.be/Xh8akuq-MDI

For this “reading,” I actually listened to the audio version. It’s an abridgement, but the abridged version is compiled by Seamus Heaney, the late, great poet/playwright/translator whose translation of Beowulf is widely popular. Heaney also reads the audio version, so you have the joy of listening to the tale with Heaney’s Irish lilt and bold voice bringing Beowulf to life. Beowulf is believed to have been largely an oral recitation, and it really makes a difference in the hearing of it, much like Shakespeare’s works are different when read or spoken aloud.

My favorite of the Beowulf retellings is Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. It’s based on a real, unfinished manuscript of an Arab man, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who travels north and lives with and makes observations about the Vikings. The book reads like an ongoing journal as the Arab and the group of Vikings embark on a similar journey to help a King fight off a particularly nasty villain. The book was made into a movie that I also enjoyed quite a bit, The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas. The book and movie make great supplements to the original hero’s tale and do justice to the mighty legend of Beowulf.

I’ve included a list of other famous epic poems including familiar stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon with a post on the sappy love junk, too!

Book With A Color in the Title

A young girl is pulled from obscurity to lead a rebellion – read that in The Hunger Games.

A young girl is elevated to royalty to make a difference in a dystopian future – read that in The Queen of the Tearling series.

A queen orchestrates the slaying of her king in order to put her son on the throne – read that in Game of Thrones.

I picked this book because I like the dystopian fiction genre, but also because one of the books in the series was just released and I wanted to give it a go. I wouldn’t say I disliked this book. I just didn’t find anything new or different in the genre. (It could also be the narrator on the audio version, because I did dislike her.) Our heroine, Mare Barrow, is a Red Blood, the lower caste of society. Silver Bloods are superior in every way, complete with magical powers that the Reds don’t possess (and real silver blood). As a result, the Silvers rule and the Reds are kept oppressed and deprived of privilege and opportunity. Somebody has to stand on the corner and wave as the Silvers go by, right?

Our girl, Mare, gets by as a pickpocket and thief with no valid trade in store for her. The future awaiting her is forced service in the military when she turns 18. Her father has returned home from service physically broken, and her three older brothers are also off fighting. Mare’s friend, Kilorn, thought his future was was military-free since he apprenticed as a fisherman. However, his benefactor dies suddenly and he comes to Mare with the news that he will be off to the military in a week. Desperate to escape a bleak and uncertain future, the two hatch a plan to escape.

I won’t spoil all of the events that transpire, but Mare is put into a situation where it’s revealed that she has the power to create and control energy and lightning. The Silvers are known to have extraordinary powers like creating fire or mind control, but no Red has ever shown this capability. The King claims Mare is from a long-lost noble family and betroths her publicly to his youngest son. She is brought into the royal fold and cut off from her family. Resentful, Mare plays along but gets pulled into a group planning a rebellion and is ultimately a pawn for them and the royal family.

It’s a fairly good read and I’ll probably pick up the sequels at some point, it’s just not high on my list for originality in the genre. This book doesn’t quite transcend the Young Adult genre to escape the teen angst and romance that threaten to distract from the story. Having said that, Mare has a lot of grit and determination. The author has parts of the world she created that hint at a post-apocalyptic upheaval and I’m interested to see how that plays out. If you like dystopian YA literature, there are additional suggestions here, including the City of Ember series which I loved!

Romance

I’m reaching pretty far back here, picking Fantasy Lover by Sherrilyn Kenyon. This book was published in 2002 and is also the first book in Kenyon’s popular Hunter- verse, which is a big part of why I chose it.

Now, I’m a big fan of romance as a genre, and I started reading romance probably about 7th or 8th grade. I cut my teeth on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Mistress of Mellyn, and an assortment of Harlequins ( I remember The Winds of Winter by Sandra Field fondly). I graduated to Jude Devereaux, Johanna Lindsey, Beatrice Small’s Skye O’Malley, and Janet Dailey’s Calder series. I moved on to other genres through the years, but dipped back to Amanda Quick, Brenda Joyce, Mary Balogh, Karen Marie Moning and lots of the paranormal trends. Kenyon’s novels have been extremely popular, and I bumped this up the top of my TBR pile because I had surprisingly never read any.

The romance genre has a good mix of things I like and things I don’t like.You read romance, above all else, for the interaction of the hero and heroine and that can be anywhere on the board from sweet to steamy, Amish to medieval, mystery to sci-fi, humor to dramatic. I like a variety of all of those and had high hopes for this book because of its popularity. Fantasy Lover has some sexy sizzle, for sure, but it also has a huge dollop of cheesiness to it, and I can’t get on board with that. I try not to put spoilers in my book discussions, but this book is old enough that I may discuss some things that could be slight spoilers. Fair warning.

Where to start? Julian of Macedon is a warrior, a general, who is the son of Aphrodite and a mortal man. After a series of events, Julian displeases the wrong gods and is banished to a book for eternity, only leaving the pages when he is summoned as a sex slave. Not just any sex slave. He stays for a full month to pleasure a woman but can never find his own release. Then, he’s back in the book until his next summoning. This has gone on for 2000 years. Our heroine is Grace, a 29-year-old sex therapist who has only ever had sex once. How does that work? I’m not sure how you can do a job like that and be afraid of the physical act, but whatever. Grace’s parents were tragically killed when she was 24 and the cad who deflowers her was collecting virginities on a bet. I get that she was treated terribly and the dude was callous about the physical hurt he inflicted on her during her first time. It still seems odd she wouldn’t find other relationships to explore further, especially since she’s a… sex therapist. I have a hard time with that. Can you tell? Grace is also described by herself and other characters as plain and slightly overweight, but that’s really all we get on a descriptive. A little more on the self-esteem or body image issues might have gone a long way to convince me of her reasons for never having sex again. Of course, Julian finds her simply scrumptious as any hero worth his weight in gold should. So, Grace’s friend helps her summon Julian to help get her past her sex hang-ups and a little moonlight and wine-soaked incantations later, and Julian and Grace are set to spend the next month together.

It’s no stretch to think they will eventually want to break the curse of Julian’s imprisonment in the book. A variety of gods and goddesses make appearances and there is melodrama surrounding Julian’s feelings of self-loathing, his loneliness throughout his life, and his revulsion at being enslaved. As with Grace’s issues, these seemed forced for the sake of having some internal conflict and kind of get dumped in the middle of the narrative.

*Spoiler alert* This is more of a spoiler alert than some of the other things I mention, but part of breaking the curse requires Grace and Julian to start having sex before the stroke of midnight and stay “joined” until sunrise. No slippy-outy or all bets are off. Seriously. I mean, maybe I’m just old, but I would have to pee sometime during this six or seven hours. That would be awkward. And require some logistical effort on my part. Guess I won’t be summoning any demi-gods from ancient texts. Also, the curse can only be broken by a woman “of Alexander,” which I thought would mean Grace has some lineage to Julian’s time and add some heft to the plot. Nope. Her last name is Alexander. That’s the magic connection. Really.

All in all, it’s not the best romance I’ve ever read but it’s also not the worst. The parts that I guess were supposed to be humorous were just cringe-worthy to me. The melodrama could have been more developed or just left out altogether; make it either campy or serious but not both. The ending was a abso-fucking-lutely eye-rolling. What do you do with a Macedonian general in 2002 New Orleans when he has no birth certificate, no current employable skills, no record on the grid? Mighty Aphrodite steps in with all the answers.

There are lots of mixed reviews on Goodreads if you want to take a look at those here. Due to the popularity of the series as a whole, I’ll probably try one or two more to see where it goes. Happy reading!

Book Recommended By A Friend

It’s the rare book that makes me want to read it again as soon as I finish it, but The Song of Achilles is a rare enough treat that it does exactly that. This tale of Mythological characters is larger than life but reads as intimately as the best of any historical fiction. You do believe that gods and goddesses walk among mortal men, that centaurs are real, and prophecies foretell the tragically inescapable fates of men.

As the title suggests, the story centers on Achilles, the greatest warrior of his generation and arguably the most golden of all of the Greek heroes. If you are shaky on your Greek mythology, Achilles is the son of a mortal, Peleus, and the minor goddess, Thetis. With such parentage, Achilles has destiny weighting him down. This is a story of tragedy, of love, of jealousy, of pride. Would you expect any less of the Greeks?

First, though, we meet 9-year-old Patroclus, an outcast prince who is exiled to the home of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons. Peleus has taken in other such exiles and made a home for them in his land. He feeds them, educates them, and trains them to fight for him. Peleus is not a fool. An exile himself, the fact that Peleus sired a son with a goddess brought him much renown and he was a self-made King, to boot. Patroclus arrives, scared and lonely and angry at the world. His anger centers on one boy in particular – the charming, athletic golden child who is popular with everyone in the kingdom, Prince Achilles. Patroclus has always been an outsider and Achilles is everything he is not. The two boys are the same age, but worlds apart in many ways.

Just when I thought a darker nature of Achilles would come to light, exposing him as a bully and ruffian, the exact opposite is revealed. The young Achilles makes a point to befriend Patroclus and include him in the camaraderie of the other boys. The reader sees an early glimpse of why Achilles is so beloved – his kindness, his warmth, his loyalty, his utter lack of meanness or ulterior motives. His character shines as brightly as his golden hair. The two boys bond and Patroclus becomes the lifelong companion to Achilles.

As the two grow older, Achilles appears comfortable with his destiny, something he doesn’t yet fully comprehend. He only knows that he is and will be the greatest warrior of his time. It’s what he was born to do. We see Achilles through Patroclus, and watch as the two form a strong friendship and an even stronger romantic attraction. Achilles will go nowhere willingly without Patroclus, and Patroclus will tirelessly search out Achilles when twists of fate forcibly remove him.

When the boys are 16, war erupts – a little event you may have heard of called the Trojan War. A guy likes a girl and kidnaps her from her husband and nations destroy each other for honor and glory. The destiny of Achilles has arrived. He is Aristos achaion, the best of the Greeks.

All of the Greek all-stars are there – Odysseus, Ajax, Menelaus, Paris, Helen, Hector, and Agamemnon. It’s a bloody years-long campaign. As Achilles is hailed by the Greeks and their allies and feared by the Trojans, his pride and honor take a toll. Achilles loses his deeper, kinder nature and Patroclus takes on the task of salvaging the shreds of the man he once knew.

I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers by saying the the story doesn’t end well. And, yet, it does. Miller has written an engrossing, captivating account of one man’s journey to heroism and, more interestingly, the journey of his significant other as the hero transforms in front of him. Patroclus knew from an early age that Achilles was destined for greatness, was already great, but his public crowning as hero was bittersweet and Patroclus is both in awe and in fear of what this all means for Achilles.

While not all of the myth surrounding Achilles shows up in the book, Miller interweaves the most logical pieces in her narrative. One glaring omission is Achilles being shot in the heel, his one vulnerable spot. However, her use of his pride as his own Achilles’ Heel is thought-provoking and clever. There is a great interview with Madeline Miller here and see her discuss The Song of Achilleshere.

Book In a Series

Heart Trouble by Mary Kay Andrews is fifth in this mystery series, which starts with Every Crooked Nanny. It continues the story of Callahan Garrity and her merry band of housekeepers who solve crimes. Callahan is a former police officer who quit to become a private detective. Detective work didn’t pay the bills, though, and Callahan bought a house cleaning business and gave up detecting work – or so she thought. Every Crooked Nanny is Callahan’s foray back into the detecting business when she runs into a former sorority sister who needs a house cleaned and a thieving nanny found. Jump several books forward, and Heart Trouble has Callahan dealing with her irascible mother’s heart condition and doing divorce work for a disgraced Atlanta socialite who is divorcing her heart surgeon husband. Callahan is working through her own emotional heart troubles as well.

This book could fit several categories for my reading list, not the least of which is reading a book set in your home town or state. Atlanta was a home to me for many years and this series gives shout outs to many of my favorites – kudzu, the Varsity, the Braves and Dale Murphy, and the University of Georgia. This is a new series to me, but was written and set in the 90s, shortly after I left. Everything mentioned as far as landmarks are familiar and part of the reason I like it so much. The other reason is, of course, Callahan Garrity . She’s a great female protagonist – sarcastic and tough and funny and vulnerable. Her business, House Mouse, is run by her and her mom and has side characters who provide comic relief, but Andrews does not shy away from grim and divisive storylines surrounding the actual mysteries and Callahan’s daily life. Throughout the series there are major health concerns, complexities of relationships, racial tensions, and other heavy topics that weave in and out of the plots.

The ability for Callahan to use the cleaning business as a ruse for her detective work is believable especially when you think about the time period these books take place – ubiquitous cell phones and social media were years away. It also helps provide some lighter aspects to the story. I would categorize this beyond a cozy mystery but not as violent or graphic as the grittier mysteries out there. It’s a pleasant, entertaining read and great for anyone who thinks they don’t like mysteries. So much of the story is about relationships, the reader can sometimes forget the mystery altogether to focus on the Garrity clan and their quirky entourage! Mary Kay Andrews originally wrote these under the name Kathy Hogan Trocheck, so you might find them in a used bookstore under that name, but most are rebranded under the Andrews name if you are looking in the bookstores or libraries for this series.

(A note on the audio versions: I’ve listened to all of these on audio so far. They are really good productions and I like the narrator, Hillary Huber. My only complaint is that some of the local place names or words are mispronounced, but it’s probably not noticeable to anyone but a local. It’s a little “nails on a chalkboard” to me, though. I did notice that in this book, Huber focuses more on a version of a Southern accent, too. Haven’t decided if I like it or not, but, again, that’s a local quirk. Fair warning to any of my Southern brethren who may take a listen!)