Missing You by Harlan Coben

I’m continuing my exploration of thrillers, and Harlan Coben is a master. He ratchets up the suspense with this tale of many threads that somehow all come together in a satisfying conclusion. He keeps the reader’s interest without resorting to graphic violence or gore, and I appreciate that.

What’s different in this one is a female protagonist and a bit of old fashioned romanticism; for example, a NY PD detective recognizes an old lover after 18 years apart when she sees his picture, under a different name, on a dating web site. That is the event that kicks the plot off and eventually ties it all together. That’s all I have to say about the plot – why spoil the surprises?

Skilled use of foreshadowing makes believable events that might otherwise have seemed improbable. If you’re a writer as well as a reader, Missing You is worth your attention for that alone. But you don’t have to be a writer to find this a worthwhile read. If you enjoy thrillers with intricate plots, this page turner is for you.

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On Parson’s Creek by Richard Sutton, YA for adults, too

Jack Taylor’s family moves often, and Jack has learned how to acclimate quickly, but he’s a city kid, and this new home, a cabin in the woods outside an isolated Oregon logging town, is different. Not much logging goes on around Parson’s Creek these days, only Everett Wright, the old man who lives up the hill, still goes into the towering cedars that seem to have a life of their own.

Jack is left to his own devices in a high school that offers no course he hasn’t already taken and with only Jim, the kid down the road, as a friend. He and Jim explore the woods and find the abandoned logging camp. What they see reveals a mystery that only Jack wants to solve. Jim says they’ve already seen too much. People died at that camp, and this town doesn’t want to talk about it.

The Taylor family moved again at the end of the school year. Some fifty years later, Jack looks back at the year living amongst the tall cedars, the mystery that remains, and the tragedies that have continued.

On Parson’s Creek  combines a teenaged boy’s coming-of-age with mystery spiced by a touch of mysticism. The author creates realistic characters and a believable high school ambiance without wallowing in adolescent angst. The setting, so vivid you can smell the cedars, will appeal to the nature lover, and the well-paced story will engage older readers as well as young adults.

YA is a change of pace for me, but I read On Parson’s Creek because I have an on-line acquaintance with the author. I’m publishing a review because I really liked the book.

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Maybe a Writer’s Biggest Sin

I love New York, have lived in Manhattan and would happily live there again. I’m literate enough to stagger through paragraph-length sentences with multiple clauses set off by commas, needed or not. I should have liked The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, but I didn’t.

Reading it was like being trapped at a cocktail party attended by intelligent but utterly self-absorbed people who are deluded enough to find themselves fascinating. In fairness, the author did a magnificent job of creating believable characters. A reader who is interested in the pretentious fringe of the New York City intelligentsia might enjoy reading The Emperor’s Children.

I finished the book only because it was recommended by someone whose reading taste I usually share, and I kept thinking it would get better. The second half was more somewhat interesting, but I resented the use of the 9/11 tragedy as a plot device.  Perhaps that’s why I’m posting a negative review rather than just putting the book in the box for Good Will, but there’s another reason.

I think The Emperor’s Children is well-written  and don’t doubt that Claire Messud is a  talented writer, but I didn’t like the the book because I didn’t like the characters. That’s not always a kiss of death – consider Gone Girl, but these characters bored me. For a writer, boring the reader is a sin.

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Apple Tree Yard, a page turner to begin the New Year

2014 brought stunning changes, and 2015 may well be over before I’ve come to terms with everything, but reading is a constant in my life, and Apple Tree Yard was an engrossing novel that carried me away.

Have you ever asked yourself, why not? Why not do something risky – just once to see what it’s like? The odds are you won’t get caught. Life will go on as before, you will have satisfied your curiosity, and you’ll have the memories to amuse yourself on gray days.

But what if you get hooked? One hit and you’re an addict. That can happen, and that is what happens to the protagonist of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. An intelligent and successful middle-aged woman sees her well-ordered life unravel because she took a foolish chance that led to a man’s death. There has to be accountability.

Apple Tree Yard is about sexual obsession, the ways we lie to ourselves, and the limits of loyalty. It is also a suspenseful page turner that kept me up late, reading to find out what happens. The novel is written in the first person, and the prose is direct and intelligent, like the protagonist whose mind we occupy. It is highly recommended to readers who enjoy psychological suspense.

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Passionate Writing (nothing to do with X-rated)

I just finished Charlotte Otter’s debut novel, Balthasar’s Gift, and left a five-star review. If it were just a good mystery, I would have given it four stars, but the author’s outrage about the South African government’s response to AIDS infuses her writing with a passion that makes this a special book.

I started thinking about other books that knocked me out, and in most cases, the author wrote the book because he or she cared – really cared – about something. Tim O’Brien’s Viet Nam war books came to mind. I looked further back, at books considered among the best of American literature.

To Kill A Mockingbird, voted the best book of the 20th century by the American Library Association, tells an engaging coming-of-age story. It also exposes the hypocrisy and human costs of discrimination – both racial and against those who are simply different.

Consider The Great Gatsby, which many critics consider the best modern American novel. How do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald, an ambitious man from an aspiring middle-class background, really felt about the snobbery of Daisy’s closed world? About how the very rich were insulated and protected from the results of their misbehavior?

Authors also imbue their books with passion when they care deeply about their characters. Their caring makes us care when we read. Now, I’m trying to think of a book that engaged me although the author seemed a distant observer.

Still thinking.

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Favorite Authors

Donna Leon, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, Michael Dibdin, Kate Atkinson, Dennis LeHane – I could go on, but these are enough to make my point. Good writers often choose to write mysteries, and their books transcend the genre label.  As a reader, those are the mysteries I enjoy most. As a writer, these authors inspire me.

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Gone Girl

Liked the book, hated the ending; hated the book, liked the ending; liked both; hated both. I think that covers the possible responses. I haven’t heard anyone say it wasn’t well-written, but Gone Girl generated a lot of controversy among members of a writers web group I belong to. We don’t even agree if the “big reveal” comes in the middle or at the end. (In the interest of not spoiling the read for anyone who hasn’t yet, I’m not going to say any more about the “big reveal” candidates, but if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about.)

It’s a thriller and a page turner that captures most readers whether they like the characters or not – maybe even whether they like the book or not. Several people admitted to throwing the book across the room when they finished. That would be members of the hate the ending faction.  Gone Girl is dark enough that I have hesitated to read more of Gillian Flynn’s books, but I will. I’m too curious not to.

The outrage that this ending generated reminded me of how I felt after finishing The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve, one of my favorite authors; that is, used, abused misled and angry. I was also crying, because the ending broke my heart. And I did pass the book on – as I did Gone Girl.

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