What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

After getting in a car accident and ending up in the hospital, a thirtysomething woman with no ID is subject to intense questioning by both the police and the hospital staff. Eventually she reveals that she is the younger of the two Bethany girls, sisters who disappeared and were presumed dead thirty years ago. As soon as the woman explains who she is, she stops giving details, leaving the lead detective on her case, Kevin Infante, in disbelief about her story. As Kevin untangles her story and the mystery of what really happened to the Bethany girls, the reader is treated to an exciting journey towards finding out the truth behind this mysterious woman and her past.

Would you believe I’d never read a Laura Lippman novel until now? I’d heard that her writing style is similar to Tana French (who I absolutely adore), so I knew that eventually I’d be reading her books. I had the opportunity to listen to What the Dead Know, and overall I was pleased with the experience.

Laura Lippman definitely has a knack for crafting a creepy, atmospheric mystery. I was kept on the edge of my seat for the majority of the time I was listening to this novel and I really wasn’t sure where the book was going to take me. I loved the suspense Lippman created and I also liked what she ended up doing with the story. It was interesting enough and a unique enough concept so that I wasn’t expecting a lot of what happened.

I have to caution you, though, if you are a fan of Tana French and want to compare the two authors (like I did) – just don’t. Lippman is a good writer and this book had a well-crafted mystery, but this book doesn’t quite measure up to the genius of French’s novels, in my opinion. So you’re best going in not expecting that type of novel. Just enjoy what Lippman does deliver and you won’t be disappointed.

One aspect of What the Dead Know that didn’t totally work for me was the characters. They weren’t written poorly or anything, but I simply didn’t connect to any of them how I would have liked. Perhaps this is because I listened to the audiobook instead of reading it in print, but I just didn’t form an emotional connection with anybody in the book, even the main character. This fact didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the novel too much, as I still found myself engaged in the mystery, but I think I would have loved the novel had I really connected with one or more of the characters.

Overall, I quite enjoyed What the Dead Know for what it is – an engaging and well-crafted mystery that held my interest throughout. I didn’t love the characters, but don’t let that stop you from reading the book as it really is well-written and the mystery is unique and expertly crafted. Laura Lippman is an author I will definitely be on the lookout for in the future.

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

The Cypress HouseThe Cypress House by Michael Koryta
Published by Little, Brown, and Company, an imprint of Hachette
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Arlen Wagner can see death. When he sees the smoke in a person’s eyes, he knows that death is coming for them in the near future, and he has never been wrong. So when he is traveling by train, heading to Key West, Florida, and sees smoke in the eyes of every passenger on board, he immediately gets off, taking 19-year-old Paul Brickhill with him. While they wait for alternative transportation, they end up at Cypress House, a boarding house run by the gorgeous but strange Rebecca Cady, and they quickly learn that the house is in the path of a potential hurricane. In addition to the danger of the storm, there are some other scary things happening in the Gulf Coast town where Cypress House sits, and while Arlen is determined to get out as soon as possible, Paul wants to stay with Rebecca, dragging Arlen into the dangers that surround them.

Many bloggers I respect have raved about Koryta’s novels, so when I noticed that his latest was available on NetGalley I couldn’t resist. I tend to like my mystery novels to be more on the literary side, and I found The Cypress House to really fit exactly what I was hoping for. The novel is creepy, atmospheric, and very well-written to boot.

From the first few pages, where Arlen sees death in his fellow passengers’ eyes, I knew I was in for an exciting and wild ride with this novel, and I was absolutely not disappointed. The book kept me on my toes the entire time and I really appreciated how much suspense Koryta provided for me. I never once knew what would happen, nor did I have any idea what to even suspect, and I loved that. The book kept me riveted every minute I was reading, and I loathed having to put it down.

Michael Koryta proved to me that not only can he spin a tale of mystery and suspense, but he can really write, too. The writing was exactly what this kind of book needed – very tight, no extra words, etc., while at the same time being very spooky and creating that perfect nerve-wracking atmosphere for the reader. In addition, the characters were extremely well drawn. The “bad guys” were creepily bad, the “good guys” (such as Arlen himself) were good but tortured, and those in the middle – such as Rebecca – were absolutely perfect. I loved how Koryta created Rebecca’s character to be sort of ambiguous – the reader never really did understand whether she was telling Arlen the truth or keeping secrets from him, and she was impossible to trust. She was probably my favorite of everyone in this novel.

I really enjoyed The Cypress House and would definitely recommend it. Even if you don’t typically read mystery novels, I would encourage you to give this book a try because it’s so well-written as well as being suspenseful. Michael Koryta definitely earned my respect with this book and I will be reading more from him in the near future.

Bent Road by Lori Roy

Bent RoadBent Road by Lori Roy
Published by Dutton Adult, an imprint of Penguin

Arthur Scott has tried to avoid the fact of his sister Eve’s death for over twenty years, to such a degree that he left his hometown in rural Kansas and never looked back. But when the 1967 race riots in Detroit make him fear for his family’s safety, he moves his wife Celia and their three children to a home on the road he grew up on, Bent Road. Arthur and their oldest daughter have no problem with their new small-town life, but Celia and their two youngest children have more trouble adjusting. Celia doesn’t understand the beauty of small-town life, and she really doesn’t understand the complexities and intricacies of Arthur’s dysfunctional family. And when a young girl in town disappears, all of Arthur’s buried family secrets surrounding his own sister’s death threaten to come to the surface, changing this family forever.

I want to begin by saying that this book is nothing like I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I did end up happy with it, but what I am saying is don’t go into it with any expectations. I was expecting a literary thriller – Tana French style – and that is not at all what Bent Road is. Just sayin’.

Instead of being a literary thriller, Bent Road is more of a character study revolving around two mysteries – what really happened to Arthur’s sister, Eve, and what happened to the missing little girl. While these mysteries are important aspects of the story, and the answers are revealed by the end of the book, the mystery aspect of the novel is secondary to the character development and the study of Arthur’s family – the family he created with Celia and the family he grew up with and has now come back to.

Arthur’s family of origin is dysfunctional with a capital D. The character my heart most broke for in this novel was Celia, because she was basically forced to live among this family she didn’t know much about, hadn’t spent any time with in the twenty years she and Arthur had been together, and came to find out that there are serious family issues, and to top it all off her mother-in-law didn’t much like her. It was sort of a train wreck waiting to happen and I really admired Celia at one point in the story because she does stick up for herself and try to protect her three children among all the chaos and drama surrounding them.

The writing in Bent Road is really fantastic and while the I would consider the novel to be of the slower variety, I was immersed in it. Completely. I loved how Roy played her characters against one another, how she built these relationships and how she wrote such distinctive, descriptive, interesting people. Yes they were dysfunctional and not emotionally stable people, but they were incredibly interesting to me and I couldn’t stop reading to find out what they would do or say next.

I read Bent Road for book club and we actually got to chat with Lori Roy over Skype, which was pretty cool. We had the opportunity to ask some questions about what her motivations were for several of the aspects of the book, which I think cleared up some things for me. Getting the chance to speak with the creator of a novel is such a great experience – it made the book so much more real to me, more tangible I guess you could say. Very cool.

While I can’t say I loved every single thing about Bent Road, I thought it was a solid novel and overall I wound up being very satisfied with it. I had a little trouble with the fact that it was so different from my expectations, but if you go in knowing this is not a thriller, or even a mystery in the traditional sense, you will be much better off. Expect more of a slower paced, character-driven novel and you will probably be a happier person in the end. I would definitely recommend Bent Road if you enjoy those types of novels.

The Girl Who Disappeared Twice by Andrea Kane

The Girl Who Disappeared TwiceThe Girl Who Disappeared Twice by Andrea Kane
Published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin
Review copy provided by the publicist

Casey Woods is the frontwoman of the unconventional investigative team Forensic Instincts, an organization of four people who solve crimes using techniques and tactics outside the boundaries of what the FBI and police typically do. When Casey is called by the honorable judge Hope Willis to solve the disappearance of her young daughter Krissy, she gets right down to business, getting to know Hope, her husband Edward, and their nanny Ashley. But what she finds out soon after arriving at Judge Willis’ home is that Krissy’s kidnapping isn’t the first to happen to this family – thirty years ago, Hope’s twin sister, Felicity, was kidnapped from their family home, never to be seen again. And now this family has to go through the same nightmare all over again – unless Casey and her team can find Krissy.

I don’t read a ton of mystery/suspense type books but I do tend to enjoy the ones I pick up, and that was certainly the case for The Girl Who Disappeared Twice.  This isn’t your standard mystery novel because there’s quite a bit of family history in the background, which makes this story more than just about what happened to Krissy but also what happened to Felicity all those years ago. To be honest, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the book as much had there not been the Felicity aspect to it. It really made the story whole for me, adding a sort of mystery-within-a-mystery thing that kept me guessing.

Casey Woods is a great character, and I took to her immediately. She is tough (of course), can read people extremely well, and doesn’t hesitate to do what needs done in order to solve the crime. I loved the dynamic between the members of Forensic Instincts – Kane wrote characters that complement each other really well, and I can see myself wanting to read more about this team if future books about them are published. One aspect of the novel I could have seen more of was the relationship between Casey and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Hutch, a member of the FBI (I think FBI – maybe police). Their relationship was touched upon, but I didn’t feel like I really understood the dynamic between the two of them and I would have been happy with a little more character-building of Hutch. This isn’t a huge gripe, but I do feel it could have enhanced the story.

As far as the mystery aspect, I was definitely kept on my toes throughout the course of the novel. Of course I had feelings along the way, and there is a turning point in the story at which I figured out the essential elements of what did happen to Krissy, but overall the book kept me guessing. The plot has that Lifetime movie feel to it, which I kind of liked – it wasn’t a gruesome serial killer type book, it was more about family secrets and that kind of drama, how someone you think you know and trust for years and years can betray you so horrifically. Personally, I like these kinds of mysteries better than the serial killer type, so it worked well for me.

The Girl Who Disappeared Twice is an interesting, exciting mystery novel with some great characters. I’d be more than happy to learn that Andrea Kane is going to make this into a series (not sure if she is, but it seemed like it at the end of the book) and would definitely pick up another novel starring Casey Woods and Forensic Instincts. Recommended.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

Nina Revskaya is an old women living in America, confined to a wheelchair because of what ballet has done to her body, when she puts her jewelry up for auction. This jewelry carries with it a lot of memories of growing up in Stalinist Russia, being a star member of the Bolshoi Ballet company, and of her best friends, her long-deceased mother, and falling in love for the first time. Nina thought the secrets of her past would be kept safe forever, but now Drew Brooks, a curious employee of the auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor who thinks he may have a connection to Nina’s jewelry, are determined to understand the mysteries behind these pieces.

Russian Winter is historical fiction at its best. My favorite historical fiction reads have certain things in common – a clear sense of place, excellent characters, and insight into a historical time period without being dry – and this novel has all those things and more.

The way that Kalotay was able to capture the essence of Stalinist Russia amazed me. I hate to admit this, but I don’t know much about that part of the world in that period of history, so it was definitely enlightening for me to read the historical aspects of this novel. The struggles the people of that time faced and the hardships they endured made me sick and extremely sad. The control that Stalin was able to have over his people astounded me, and Kalotay did such an excellent job illuminating what life may have been like for the people there. I truly felt that I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of this particular piece of history.

The novel switches back and forth between past and present, and while sometimes this literary device can be confusing, in this case it worked perfectly. I was kept on the edge of my seat to find out what happened in Nina’s life in Russia, while at the same time I got to read about Nina’s current situation in the US. I was concerned that I wouldn’t care enough about Drew or Grigori, as they are somewhat secondary to the real story, but luckily Kalotay gives the reader enough of their stories and allows the reader to get to know them as characters too, so much so that I cared just as much about the two of them as I did about Nina.

The characters in Russian Winter were crafted amazingly well – every single one of them, even Nina’s friends and family members from her past in Russia were real to me. While Nina is definitely the central character in the novel, the other people in her life play a huge part in the mysteries of her past, and I definitely came to care about all of them. It’s strange, because you know from reading the present tense portions of the novel that none of these people are in Nina’s life anymore, yet I would still read with bated breath, hoping that these people would remain in Nina’s life forever, that they would all grow up together and live happily ever after. I was that involved, cared that much, about these characters.

There is a mystery intertwined within this novel and I appreciated the way it revealed itself very slowly, in the context of the history and the characters. The mystery was secondary to the story itself, but was a huge part of how everything was resolved in the end. I was definitely surprised (in a good way) by how things ended and I have to say that for me, things were wrapped up perfectly.

Russian Winter is an absolutely fantastic novel. It is a perfect example of historical fiction at its finest, one that would be a great choice for all different types of readers. It has history, excellent characters, a mystery to solve, and solidly great writing as well. I loved this one.

The Raising by Laura Kasischke

The Raising by Laura Kasischke
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publicist

The accident was a horrific one, and it left beautiful, popular, smart sorority girl Nicole dead. Craig, her boyfriend and the one driving the car that killed her, is back at school a year later, trying to put his life back together. Perry, his roommate and Nicole’s long-time friend, is working through his own grief by taking a class about death and dying. Mira, Perry’s professor of said course, is working hard to juggle her full-time career, manage her stay-at-home husband’s happiness, and care for her two-year-old twins. And Shelly, a music professor at the same college, who was the first person at the scene of the accident, has given up on telling the media outlets and police the truth of what really happened that night. She spends her time trying to convince herself that what she saw that night – Nicole, very much alive after the accident – was a figment of her imagination, instead of a mystery that needs to be solved.

The Raising is one of the most interesting and surprising novels I’ve read in a while. When I began reading it, I thought the book would mainly be about how these characters dealt with their grief in the wake of Nicole’s death, and truth be told I didn’t understand why it was such a long book. I wasn’t sure how Shelly and Mira would fit in with the rest of the characters, or even if their stories really had anything to do with the meat of the novel. Boy, was I wrong!

While I absolutely was intrigued by and ended up loving the plot of this novel, the characters really took me by surprise (in a good way). Craig, Perry, Mira, and Shelly were each extremely vivid characters, expertly created by Kasischke and crafted into real people. And the way that their stories all came together in the end so the reader could finally understand how important each one was to the overall story – I thought that was genius. The character of Nicole, while she isn’t technically alive in the book, came alive through the other characters’ memories of her. By the end of the novel, I felt that I knew Nicole just as well as everyone else.

I loved that there was a mystery aspect to this novel, especially because I wasn’t expecting that at all. It has that creepy kind of undertone throughout the entire book, which was just delicious. I couldn’t wait to find out what characters’ motivations really were for their actions, what secret they were trying to cover up, and what really happened to Nicole. While the characters were fantastic, it was the mysterious plot that caused me to have extreme difficulty putting the book down!

I definitely feel that I can’t properly do The Raising justice in this review because the book really is that good. It’s the kind of book where the action builds slowly, allowing the reader to really get to know the characters before the “real” plot starts to happen. But if you are a patient reader, you will be rewarded in a big way by this novel. I loved, loved it!

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Twenty-year-old twin sisters Julia and Valentina are surprised and intrigued when they learn that their recently deceased aunt Elspeth left them her London apartment. The one condition is that the girls must live in it for one year, in which time their mother, Edie (Elspeth’s twin) is not to set foot in the apartment. So the twins move from their Chicago suburb to London, to Elpeth’s flat which borders the Highgate cemetery, and shares a building with Robert, Elpeth’s lover, and Martin, a very nice man who has a serious case of OCD and never leaves his flat. The girls work to understand the truth about their mother and aunt’s relationship, and as they do so they realize that Elpeth might still be around, in some form, to guide them through her own past.

Would you believe I bought a new copy of Her Fearful Symmetry the day it was released (September 2009) and am just now getting to it? I should really stop doing that! But in this case, I’m kind of glad I waited, because upon its release there was a TON of hype. And a lot of bloggers who read it right at that time ended up being disappointed. However, since I knew to dim my expectations a bit, I actually loved the book. Once I understand that I wasn’t going to get The Time Travelers Wife part two, which luckily I knew going into this novel, I was able to relax and enjoy the book for what it was. And what an excellent novel Her Fearful Symmetry is!

Niffenegger’s prose is just fabulous. It’s haunting and lush without being over-the-top. She is able to draw so much out of her characters without explicitly telling the reader what they’re thinking and feeling – she writes them so that the reader feels that he/she knows them. Her characters truly come alive on the page.

The actual plot of Her Fearful Symmetry is interesting, but there is a lot going on that the reader needs to keep track of. There are the twins, Julia and Valentina. There is the other set of twins, Edie and Elspeth, and there is quite an involved story about their lives growing up and how they ended up estranged from one another for twenty years. There is Robert, who is grieving the death of Elspeth while simultaneously beginning a new relationship. There is Martin, the upstairs neighbor, who is trying to overcome his disorder so he can be with his wife again. And then there is the fact that this is somewhat of a ghost story, too. But the elements of the story never felt overwhelming for me, which is a testament to Niffenegger’s talent – everything came together seamlessly.

The ending came as a huge surprise to me, and while everything about it was incredibly sad, it did fit with the rest of the story well. These characters made some very poor choices, out of ignorance or out of selfishness or both, and some of them had to suffer for it. I also was happy to finally learn the truth about Edie and Elpeth’s estrangement.

I’m so glad I finally made myself read Her Fearful Symmetry! I don’t know that this book is for everyone, but it was perfect for me and I absolutely loved it.

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

These Things HiddenThese Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf
Published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

When These Things Hidden begins, we meet Allison Glenn, who is just coming out of a five-year prison sentence for an unthinkable crime. Allison was the golden girl of her small town before being sent to prison, and the repercussions of what happened that fateful night have deeply affected her younger sister, Brynn. We also meet Claire, owner of a bookstore and mom to a delightful little boy, Joshua. And then there is Charm, a girl who grew up with Allison and Brynn and who still carries secrets of her own. Allison, Brynn, Claire, and Charm are all tied together in one major way, and when they figure out exactly how, years of secrets will finally be released.

I purposely tried to give a pretty vague summary of These Things Hidden because so many of the elements of the plot surprised me, and I liked it that way. This novel threw me for a loop in a lot of ways and when I finished, I was sort of in shock – in a good way. The story is much more complex than I had anticipated, and I felt that Gudenkauf crafted the plot of the novel extremely well.

These Things Hidden is told from alternating points of view between Allison, Claire, Charm and Brynn, and telling the story this way was extremely effective. It allowed each of the characters to win over the reader individually, while at the same time revealing their story in such a way that I had real difficulty putting the book down. These four women definitely captured my heart, and I was alternately annoyed with all of them and rooting for all of them at different points throughout the novel. For me, I can tell I’m enjoying a book when I feel deep sympathy for the characters, and that was definitely the case here.

I feel like I haven’t said anything here, but I honestly don’t want to say more because there’s just so much about this book that’s better left unsaid. I’ll just say that I was very impressed with this novel – the characters, the story, the writing, everything. I would definitely recommend These Things Hidden.

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard
Published by HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Seventeen-year-old Emma is a foster kid who has always longed for a real family. When she discovers that she may have a twin, she leaves her temporary home in Las Vegas to her twin, Sutton’s, home in Arizona. But when she arrives in Tucson, it appears that Sutton has actually been killed within the last day or two – and nobody in Sutton’s life seems to know this fact yet. So Emma begins to live as Sutton, trying desperately to figure out what happened to the sister she’s never met.

I really enjoy the TV show Pretty Little Liars (based upon the books by Sara Shepard, although I haven’t actually read the books), and I read and enjoyed Shepard’s only adult novel, The Visibles [my review], so when I saw The Lying Game on NetGalley I jumped at the chance to read it. I’m glad I did because this is an incredibly engaging young adult novel with a fun mystery aspect that really kept me guessing.

One thing that took me a little while to get used to was the fact that Sutton, the dead twin, is the narrator in this story. Sutton sort of knows about what happened to her, but her memories are really fuzzy – so with each new piece of information that Emma learns, Sutton has sort of an “ah-ha” moment about her own life. It’s an interesting way to tell the story, and although it threw me off at first, I came to like the way Shepard did things.

Emma is a great character, she has had to rely on herself for most of her life as she bounced around between different foster homes, so when she finds herself in the middle of Sutton’s life she is able to play along and fit right in. She is used to being a chameleon, to going with the flow, and she has the strength and courage to investigate what really happened to her twin while also pretending to be Sutton. I really admired Emma’s resourcefulness in her covert investigations, and I loved how she started to feel close to Sutton’s family and friends so quickly – she wished so badly that she would have been given the opportunity to have a life like Sutton’s for real. Sutton was more of an interesting character for me. It’s clear from what Emma experiences that Sutton was a “mean girl”, but as Sutton doesn’t remember much about her life it’s easy for the reader to forget what she was like when she was alive. Her voice is well-drawn by Shepard and, this is so weird, but I kept wanting her to suddenly be alive. Like, “just kidding Emma, I’m not really dead, we can be the sisters we were always meant to be” – obviously that didn’t happen. But still – it shows how I enjoyed these characters!

The mystery aspect of The Lying Game is crafted well – I was just as intrigued as Emma about what really happened to Sutton. I like that this is a series so not a whole lot was resolved in this first book. Enough was resolved to make me not angry with the author, but also to make me want to pick up the second book. A perfect way to begin a series, if you ask me!

I really enjoyed The Lying Game. It is the ideal book for readers looking for a fun, mysterious young adult read that kicks off what I think will be a fantastic series!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publicist

I was very excited to begin reading The Little Stranger but admittedly also a little nervous.  This was my first Sarah Waters experience, and so many of my favorite bloggers love her – what if I didn’t feel the same way?  I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time worrying about that, though, because this book was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.

Here are some of the elements of The Little Stranger:  a post-WWII setting, a creepy/possibly haunted old house (called Hundreds Hall – now if that’s not a creepy house name, I don’t know what is!), a strange and reclusive family, and a doctor named Daniel Faraday who grows close to this family and their house.  Oh, and some absolutely fantastic writing.  If this list to you makes an awesomely strange, creepy book,  then you should just stop reading what I have to say about it and go read it for yourself.  Because, to me, it was great and that’s all you need to know.

If you need a bit more convincing, I will stress once again that Sarah Waters’ writing is incredibly incredible.  There’s no other way to say it, she’s just that good.  I was torn between wanting to race through the book to find out what the heck was going on and wanting to slow down and savor every word.  Not many authors can make that happen for me, and I suspect I’ll be reading much more from Waters because of it.

The Little Stranger is packed with so much fruit ripe for discussion that I can’t even begin to cover it here.  But I will say that while it is a story about a haunted house, it is SO much more than that.  It is a psychological thriller that also asks questions about relationships, about class, about what it means to have money and what it means to not, about medicine and mental illness in the 1950′s, and more.  I actually want to read it again to allow myself the opportunity of digesting all that Waters presented, and I probably will at some point.  I was so concerned with what was happening with this darn house that I’m sure I missed a lot.  For this reason, The Little Stranger would make an excellent book club pick.  I almost never say that (because I’m not in a book club it doesn’t typically occur to me) but in this case, there’s just SO much to discuss that it begs to be read by a group.

While I’ve seen some negative reviews of this book, I personally could not disagree more – I absolutely loved it and will be reading more of Sarah Waters in the very near future.  Most highly recommended.