She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper: A Gripping Thriller, A Touching Father-Daughter Story, a Special Kind of Crime Novel

She Rides ShotgunShe Rides Shotgun

by Jordan Harper

Hardcover, 257 pg.
Ecco, 2017
Read: August 7 – 8, 2018

This is one of those books where you want to sit and talk about it for a couple of hours — recapping and dissecting the events, analyzing, and speculating about what happens after the book ends; or you don’t want to say anything beyond “just read it, I don’t want to ruin anything for you.” I could absolutely relish the former, but I’m going to hew closer to the latter. Harper’s better to read on this than me, anyway.

So, here’s the official blurb to keep me from slipping:

           Eleven-year-old Polly McClusky is shy, too old for the teddy bear she carries with her everywhere, when she is unexpectedly reunited with her father, Nate, fresh out of jail and driving a stolen car. He takes her from the front of her school into a world of robbery, violence, and the constant threat of death. And he does it to save her life.

Nate made dangerous enemies in prison—a gang called Aryan Steel has put out a bounty on his head, counting on its members on the outside to finish him off. They’ve already murdered his ex-wife, Polly’s mother. And Polly is their next target.

Nate and Polly’s lives soon become a series of narrow misses, of evading the bad guys and the police, of sleepless nights in motels. Out on the lam, Polly is forced to grow up early: with barely any time to mourn her mother, she must learn how to take a punch and pull off a drug-house heist. She finds herself transforming from a shy little girl into a true fighter. Nate, in turn, learns what it’s like to love fiercely and unconditionally—a love he’s never quite felt before. But can their powerful bond transcend the dangerous existence he’s carved out for them? Will they ever be able to live an honest life, free of fear?

She Rides Shotgun is a gripping and emotionally wrenching novel that upends even our most long-held expectations about heroes, villains, and victims. Nate takes Polly to save her life, but in the end it may very well be Polly who saves him.

The thing to remember about Nate — he might be trying to be a good father, he may want to be a good father and act a certain way for Polly. But he’s not a good guy. He’s not a paragon of virtue, he’s not a reputable citizen. He’s a criminal — and not an entirely successful criminal, with almost zero parenting skills. But man, he wants to try. Expect some heroics, but remember he’s no Nick Mason, Jack Reacher or the like.

Polly? I don’t know what to say about her. If you can read a few chapters of this and not fall in love with this little girl, want to adopt her and protect her from all this madness? Something’s broken in you. She’ll win your affections, you’ll root for her, you’ll pity her, you’ll hope she survives this all intact.

There were a couple of other stand-out characters — I’d get into them, but it doesn’t matter. Your appreciation for this book comes down to this: what do you think about Nate and Polly and what they go through?

This is a tense thriller, with more than your typical emotional moments for the genre. Harper delivers both with equal skill and aplomb. As horrible as so much of this plot was — this was a real pleasure to read, from cover to cover.

I first heard about this novel — and author, come to think of it — on Episode 33 of Two Crime Writers And A Microphone, you might want to check it out.

—–

4 Stars

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Without Rules by Andrew Field: A dark tale where many means are justified


Without RulesWithout Rules

by Andrew Field

Kindle Edition, 215 pg.
Boomstang, 2018

Read: October 9 – 11, 2018


Last week, in the many tributes to Elmore Leonard that I saw floating around on what would’ve been his birthday, I came across this quotation: “I don’t judge in my books. I don’t have to have the antagonist get shot or the protagonist win. It’s just how it comes out. I’m just telling a story.” Which seemed awfully appropriate as I was in the closing chapters of Without Rules at the time. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything Leonard-esque to Field’s novel*, but they definitely were working from the same ethos.

This book starts off showing you that it’s about as far as you can get from a cozy — a hit man and his accomplice on the run after a disastrous (yet successful) job take shelter in something between a brothel and a porn studio while waiting for extraction. Their unwilling hostess supplies them with booze, a laundry machine, and some meaningless sex in the meantime. When the opportunity presents, she tries to convince the hitman to rescue both herself and her daughter from their situation — being forced by her father to live and work in this place since she was about her daughter’s age. Naturally, it’s this same father who hired the hitman to take out one of his clients before he could be flipped by the police.

Things get messier from there — no, really. Soon, we’re plunged into a mare’s nest of police cover-ups, police investigations, evidence tampering, evidence planting, blackmail, murder, pedophilia rings, international drug dealers, and real estate fraud. This particular night ends in betrayals, deaths, lives and careers being ruined, missing people and near-death escapes. The book will then lurch ahead a couple of years to witness the chaos and destruction left by that night and how it’s altered, prospered and ruined lives — and attempts will be made by several to rectify that situation. The novel will then jump ahead as the events of part two have left even more trouble and chaos in their wake for the survivors to try to deal with the aftermath.

There’s a fine line between complex and convoluted — this novel doesn’t tip-toe down that line, it dances on it. When it falters, it typically lands on the convoluted side before resuming its jig. There are arguably too many characters running around — and few of them are fully rounded-out. But, largely, I’m okay with that — because the more I get to know just about any of these characters the less I wanted to know them at all. These are ugly people in the midst of ugly businesses.

With one or two climactic exceptions, the action is believable, the evil is all too real — there’s no criminal mastermind stroking his cat while the world burns. Instead we have several depraved individuals scraping to make their fortunes greater — or just to survive. There’s one well-timed Diabolus ex Machina that was hard to swallow that was necessary to set up the book’s conclusion, but otherwise the action stayed within the bounds of credulity.

In a capricious world, it’s odd to find so many characters talking about justice — generally how it’s impossible to find — but just about every one of these characters has a lot to say about it. There is an irony there for the careful reader to appreciate.

Minor spoiler: There’s no happily ever afters here. No redemption arcs. No one wears a white hat. A couple of characters do ride off into the sunset, but not in any real sense of victory or joy. The cynical among us — many would prefer to be called realists — would say that this is an accurate reflection of life. No justice, no just desserts, bad things happen to bad people, those who intend to be heroes become villains, a villain or two will find themselves doing something heroic, and everyone’s out for themselves and a profit. In a very noir world, Andrew Field offers us a very noir novel.


* That’s not a ding on Field, there’s pretty much no one who can write something Leonard-esque. And it’s generally embarrassing when they try.

Blood Feud by Mike Lupica: Sunny Randall’s Back in this Promising Reintroduction

Blood FuedRobert B. Parker’s Blood Feud

by Mike Lupica
Series: Sunny Randall, #7eARC, 352 pg.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Read: October 5 – 9, 2018

I have a complicated relationship with Sunny Randall. Readers of this site have been frequently exposed to my love for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone novels, both by Parker and the continuations by Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman (let’s overlook Michael Brandman’s contributions for the moment). I enjoyed his stand-alone works, and I thought the first couple of Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch books were fun (I haven’t tried the Robert Knott continuations). Which leaves us with Sunny.

Sunny Randall, the story goes, was written to be adapted into a film series for Parker’s chum, Helen Hunt (incidentally, I’ve never been able to envision Helen Hunt in a single Sunny scene, but that’s just me). She’s a private investigator; a former cop; part-time painter (art, not house); emotionally entangled with her ex-husband, but can’t live with him; lives in Boston; and enjoys good food. But she’s totally not a female Spenser — she doesn’t like baseball, see? I’ve read all the books — some multiple times — and while I enjoyed them, I’ve never clicked with Sunny the way I have with others. Including every other Parker protagonist. Most of her novels are mashups and remixes of various Spenser novels, entertaining to see things in a different light — but that’s about it. Frankly, the most I ever liked Sunny was in the three Jesse Stone novels late in Parker’s run (but both characters are better off without each other).

So when it was announced that Mike Lupica would be taking up the reins of this series I was intrigued but not incredibly enthused. I only know Lupica from having bought a few of his books for my sons when they were younger. I didn’t get around to reading any of them, so he’s really a new author for me. And sure, I was a little worried about a YA/MG author taking the reins of a “grown-up” series. But not much — if you can write a novel, you can write a novel, it’s just adjusting your voice and language to be appropriate for the audience.

Enough blather — let’s talk about Blood Feud. Since we saw her last, Sunny has had to move, Richie (her ex-) has gotten another divorce (giving them the chance to date or whatever you want to call it) and has replaced her late dog, Rosie, with another Rosie. Other than that, things are basically where they were after the end of Spare Change 11 years ago (for us, anyway, I’m not sure how long for her, but less time has passed you can bet).

By the way — does anyone other than Robert B. Parker, Spenser and Sunny really do this? Your dog dies, so you go and get another one of the same breed and call him/her the same name? Is this really a thing?

Then one night — Richie is shot. It’s not fatal, but was done in such a way that no one doubts for a moment that it could have been had the assailant wanted it to be. For those who don’t know (or don’t remember), Richie is the son of an Irish mob boss, although he has nothing to do with the family business. He’s given a message for his father — his shooter is coming for him, but wants him to suffer first. This kicks off a race for the shooter — Sunny, the Burke family and the police (led by Sgt. Frank Belson) are vying to be the one to find the shooter.

Before long, the violence spreads to other people the Burkes employ — both property and persons are targeted by this stranger. It’s clear that whoever is doing this has a grudge going back years. So Sunny dives into the Burke family history as much as she can, so she can get an answer before her ex-father-in-law is killed. Not just the family history — but the family’s present, too. As much as the roots of the violence are in the past, Sunny’s convinced what the Burkes are up to now is just as important to the shooter.

Richie’s father, Desmond, isn’t happy about Sunny sticking her nose into things. Not just because of the crimes she might uncover — but he really wants to leave the past in the past. But as long as someone might come take another shot at Richie, Sunny won’t stop. This brings her into contact with several criminal figures in Boston (like Parker-verse constants Tony Marcus and Vinnie Morris) as well as some we’ve only met in Sunny books.

There are a couple of new characters in these pages, but most of them we’ve met before — Lupica is re-establishing this universe and doesn’t have time to bring in many outsiders, but really just reminds us who the players are. Other than the new Rosie, I can’t point at a character and say “that’s different.” He’s done a pretty good job of stepping into Parker’s shoes. Not the pre-Catskill Eagle Parker like Atkins, but the Parker of Sunny Randall books, which is what it should feel like (( wouldn’t have objected to a Coleman-esque true to the character, just told in a different way). I think some of the jokes were overused (her Sox-apathy, for one), but it wasn’t too bad. Lupica did make some interesting choices, particularly toward the end, which should set up some interesting situations for future installments.

The mystery was decent enough, and fit both the situations and the characters — I spent a lot of the novel far ahead of Sunny (but it’s easier on this side of the page). I enjoyed the book — it’s not the best thing I’ve read this year, but it’s a good entry novel for Lupica in this series, a good reintroduction for the characters/world, and an entertaining read in general. If you’re new to this series, this would be as good a place to hop on as it was for Lupica.

I want better for Parker’s creation (but I think I’d have said that for most of Parker’s run with the series), and Lupica’s set things up in a way that we could get that in the near-future. He’s demonstrated that he has a good handle on the character he inherited, the question is, what can he do with her from here? I was ambivalent about this series coming back, but I can honestly say that I’m eager to see what happens to it next.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars

Dead Blind by Rebecca Bradley: A gripping thriller featuring a uniquely disqualified hero

Dead BlindDead Blind

by Rebecca Bradley

Kindle Edition, 358 pg.
2018
Read: August 9, 2018

There are two gripping stories in this novel — the primary one isn’t the crime story (odd for a work of crime fiction), but it is the better executed of the two. Which isn’t a slight to the secondary story, at least not intentionally.

Let’s start with the crime — DI Ray Patrick and his team are investigating an international organ smuggling ring. Every time I’ve run into this kind of story — in print or on TV — it has always been effective. Something about the idea of harvesting organs from people (who may or may not survive the process for at least awhile) to transplant into people who may or may not survive (given the less than ideal facilities for such activities) has always disturbed me. Then when my son was diagnosed with renal failure and we were told he’d need a kidney transplant, these kind of stories became more nightmarish for me. So yeah, basically, this was right up my alley.

Thankfully, he’d received his kidney a couple of weeks before I read this one, so it didn’t end up costing me sleep. Incidentally, the facts and figures about transplants, the need for them and the lack of donors, etc. all lined up with everything we’d been told. Yes, there are differences in protocols between the two medical systems, but on the whole, what Patrick and the rest learned matched what I’d learned. When it comes to thins kind of thing in novels, I’m always wondering how much the author fudged and how much came from research — I’m happy to say that Bradley got this right.

So this story — from how the ring operates to how Patrick and the rest investigate is very satisfying.

Which leaves the primary story. Patrick comes back to work from a nasty automobile accident, mostly recovered from his physical injuries. But that’s not the only injury he sustained. Patrick now is dealing with prosopagnosia, aka “face blindness.” Through some clever guesswork, and a whole lot of luck, he’s never revealed it to anyone other than his ex-wife (so she can help him with his kids). Now back at work, Patrick is attempting to hoodwink everyone into thinking he’s okay, because he doesn’t want to risk not losing his job.

On the one hand you want to see him pull off his silly scheme, on the other, you want to see him be the man of integrity everyone thinks he is and be honest with his colleagues and friends. Especially when Patrick’s inability to discern or remember faces jeopardizes the investigation.

Watching Patrick try to remember people via other means while trying to lead an investigation, and deal with the ramifications of the disorder in his personal life gives the book its emotional weight. And it delivers that in spades.

Patrick’s team is full of some pretty well-drawn characters, which also applies for the other people in his life — grounding the more outlandish flavorings of the other stories. I enjoyed the read and found it gripping — looking forward to seeing more from Bradley.

—–

3 Stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook) by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne: A Mix of Common Sense, Cynicism, Self-Aggrandizement, Clever Writing, and a Great Narrator

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook)The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., 17 min.
HarperAudio, 2016

Read: October 1, 2018

I’d seen this book around, and let my eyes slide right off given the title. Clearly, it wasn’t for me. Then a couple of months ago, I heard it referenced in a couple of podcast interviews (no, I don’t remember who talked about it — but at least one of them said something thoughtful about it) and my cubicle-mate listened to it at the same time and seemed to enjoy it. So I figured I’d give it a shot. I’m very glad I did, really.

I’m also glad that HarperCollins’ website gives such a thorough blurb about the book, which will save me so much time — so let’s take a moment to read what they said:

           In this generation-defining self-help guide, a superstar blogger cuts through the crap to show us how to stop trying to be “positive” all the time so that we can truly become better, happier people.

For decades, we’ve been told that positive thinking is the key to a happy, rich life. “F**k positivity,” Mark Manson says. “Let’s be honest, shit is f**ked and we have to live with it.” In his wildly popular Internet blog, Manson doesn’t sugarcoat or equivocate. He tells it like it is—a dose of raw, refreshing, honest truth that is sorely lacking today. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k is his antidote to the coddling, let’s-all-feel-good mindset that has infected modern society and spoiled a generation, rewarding them with gold medals just for showing up.

Manson makes the argument, backed both by academic research and well-timed poop jokes, that improving our lives hinges not on our ability to turn lemons into lemonade, but on learning to stomach lemons better. Human beings are flawed and limited—”not everybody can be extraordinary, there are winners and losers in society, and some of it is not fair or your fault.” Manson advises us to get to know our limitations and accept them. Once we embrace our fears, faults, and uncertainties, once we stop running and avoiding and start confronting painful truths, we can begin to find the courage, perseverance, honesty, responsibility, curiosity, and forgiveness we seek.

There are only so many things we can give a f**k about so we need to figure out which ones really matter, Manson makes clear. While money is nice, caring about what you do with your life is better, because true wealth is about experience. A much-needed grab-you-by-the-shoulders-and-look-you-in-the-eye moment of real-talk, filled with entertaining stories and profane, ruthless humor, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k is a refreshing slap for a generation to help them lead contented, grounded lives.

Sure, some of that is overblown — its point is to sell you the book, right? But, by and large, that’s a good summary of the book’s highlights. Manson’s point isn’t to stop giving a f*ck period, it’s to give fewer f*cks in general and to make sure the f*cks you give are for the right/important stuff in life. That’s pretty basic, but pretty easily ignored advice: everything seems important, but not everything is. Focus on the important stuff, care about that, and let the rest go — if it works out, great. I’m not sure if this is different from Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — but it probably has more laughs and profanity.

Manson is entirely too impressed with himself (or at least he comes across that way), and he never convinces me that there’s a reason to heed his advice over anyone else’s. But on the whole, what he says makes a lot of sense. Do I think that ultimately, this is all a house of cards that won’t stand intense scrutiny? Yup. But I think that of every bit of man-made advice — Manson’s is more amusingly delivered than most, and won’t get the devotee into too much trouble if they apply this recklessly.

Roger Wayne’s narration elevates the entire thing — there’s not a moment that I don’t confuse his voice for Manson’s. It felt like I was attending one of the most intense self-help seminars in history and that Manson got going and just wouldn’t stop (not that anyone tried to make him). Wayne added voices (his Disappointment Panda voice is the best character I’ve heard in an audiobook since Luke Daniel’s take on Hearne’s Oberon), flair and a sense of passion to the text. When Manson approached poignancy, Wayne made it all the more so. Fantastic work.

I’d probably give this 3-stars if I’d read the text — amusing, thought-provoking, with some good advice. But, you add in Wayne’s narration? I’ve got to bump it up to 4. Seriously, he’s just that good. This isn’t a book for everyone (I know several readers of this blog that should avoid it just for the language), but for those who are capable of sorting out the wheat from the chaff — this is a fun and potentially helpful read.

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4 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout: An All-Ages SF that is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser

Voyage of the DogsVoyage of the Dogs

by Greg van Eekhout

Hardcover, 208 pg.
HarperCollins, 2018
Read: October 1, 2018

           Of course, the humans couldn’t go alone. There had to be dogs. Because wherever humans went dogs came along. Like rats, only more helpful. Dogs would herd livestock. Dogs would keep watch against the unknown. And, more importantly, dogs would keep the human crew company during the long spaceflight, and on their new home, far away from Earth.

But first they had to get there.

I guess this is technically a “Middle Grade” book — but forget about that. Call it All-Ages instead — that way, adults and YA readers and . . . everyone can enjoy this SF guilt-free. I should also include this line from The Big Idea post Van Eekhout wrote on Scalzi’s blog: “Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book. Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.” It’s important to get that out of the way.

Let’s start with this: the rationale to bring dogs along on a spaceship. It’s brilliant. It also points to one of the biggest problems with Starfleet, the Colonial Battle Fleet, the Serenity, etc. A lack of animals. Sure, NCC 1701-D had pets (not that we saw them often), but they were sealed up in cabins. And Firefly‘s episode “Safe” had cattle, but that was an oddity. The animals aboard Laika are there for purposes — like the main character, Lopside. He’s there to hunt rats — where there are humans and cargo, there are rats. Something small and fast — and with a good nose — is needed to hunt rats down.

The book will do a better job explaining the roles of the other three dogs and what advances in breeding have led to dogs being capable of being more than the dogs we have today — while still remaining dogs — to become Barkonauts.

These poor, brave dogs go into the hibernation state just before the humans do to complete the voyage to a nearby star system as part of human exploration and colonization, the first mission like this humanity has tried. But when the dogs wake up, they notice something’s wrong — part of the ship is missing, as is the crew.

They’re too far into the mission to turn around, too far away for a rescue mission to reach them. At this point, Lopside and the others have to try to salvage what they can and limp along to their final destination.

Lopside is a terrier mix, he’s brave, he has (understandably) abandonment issues — which are not helped at all by the absence of the humans. He’s a little scatter-brained (like a good terrier) and he’s incredibly loyal and has a great heart. The other barkonauts are as well-drawn and lovable.

Van Eekhout is clearly a dog-lover and it comes out in his characters. He’s also a pretty good story-teller, because even with that spoiler, I was invested in the outcome and really wasn’t sure how he was going to pull things off in a way that was satisfying and that wouldn’t reduce semi-sensitive 5th-graders across the globe to quivering balls of tears (a lesson Wilson Rawls could’ve used, I have to say — no, I’m not still torn up about Old Dan and Little Ann, why do you ask?). He does succeed in that — although some might get a bit misty at a point or two. It’s a fun and creative story, and takes some oft-repeated SF tropes and deals with them in a refreshing way.

Ignore the stars — I can’t bring myself to give it more, I don’t know why. Pay attention to what I have said above and this: read the book. It’ll warm your heart, it’ll make you make you a little sad, it’ll give you something to grin about — and it tells a good story, too. What more do you want?

—–

3.5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton: A Child Abduction Sets Off a Disturbing Chain of Events


Burning SecretsBurning Secrets

by Ruth Sutton

Kindle Edition, 264 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018

Read: October 2 – 3, 2018

For a book that clocks in at 264 pages, Sutton packed in a lot of story. I’m having difficulty deciding what to focus on, I’ve got to say. If only all authors could present a guy with such problems . . .

This book starts off with a child abduction — a child, Helen Helsop, that we get to know a little bit before she’s abducted. Immediately I groaned, because the last thing I wanted to deal with is a book about a little girl getting snatched and then dealing with whatever abuse is looming. Without spoiling much, let me assure you — nothing like that happens. This is not that kind of kidnapped child story. This doesn’t mean that she’s been taken for benign or even beneficial reasons, however.

Helen hasn’t been living at home — she’s been staying with family in town so she can attend school. Because theirs is a farming community — predominately, or at least heavily, a dairy and cattle area, and this is 2001 — the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis. I’ll be honest, as an American in a pre-social media age, I didn’t have a strong grasp on the effect this had on smaller farmers — I just never was exposed to it. I got what it meant on the national/industry front, but didn’t think much more about it. If I had, it would’ve been obvious just how much this would decimate a community, an individual family, and why this was such a horrible crisis. Anyway, back to Helen — she hasn’t had a good time of it in this temporary home and is easily persuaded to leave. It’s hours (of course) before anyone notices that she’s missing, and even then, most of her family doesn’t believe she’s actually missing.

Before that, thankfully, the police are called in — we focus on DC Maureen Pritchard — a well-known fixture in the community (not as well-known as her father, however) and the newly-arrived DS Anna Penrose. There’s a little professional jealousy between the two — Pritchard envies another woman in a position she was denied and Penrose would love the acceptance and respect her fellow officers seem to have for Pritchard. But largely, they can put that aside to focus on Helen. It’s obvious from the start that the foster family and Helen’s actual family are both holding back from the police, but it’s hard to tell if it’s germane to the case, or if it’s just things that no one wants to share with outsiders.

This is all so compellingly told — the layers that Sutton is working on are something to behold. She’s excellent at revealing more and more about Pritchard and Penrose while they’re uncovering more about Helen’s life and whoever took her. You could make the case (I think you’d be wrong, but you can make it) that the mystery in this novel takes a back seat to the drama surrounding the women and their superiors. Initially, probably because we meet her first, I was pulling for Pritchard to solve the case, rescue the girl and save the day to put Penrose in her place. But soon, I just wanted the two of them to knock off the nonsense and just work together — preferably by being open with each other about what’s going on. I won’t say if I was ultimately satisfied in that desire, but I can say that Sutton deals with their relationship in a way that is absolutely believable and realistic — a very satisfactory job.

The greatest impediment to the search for Helen isn’t the fact that the family is hiding something(s), the difficulty in tracking down a person of interest, the cleverness of the kidnapper, finding a particular van in a decent size, getting a straight answer out of scared kids with overbearing/concerned parents interfering (for nefarious reasons or unintentionally), or any of the other absolutely understandable and inevitable roadblocks. Instead, it’s Detective Inspector Stanley Bell — he’s too focused on the budget and on impressing his DCI, not that we can forget his obvious misogyny and blatant racism. It’d have been easy for Sutton to leave him as a buffoon, an obstacle, a foil for Pritchard and Penrose — but she doesn’t, there are times when he seems to be a perfectly capable police officer. But those times are the minority — it is fun to watch his subordinates play him to get their way, Penrose learns from Pritchard’s example quickly on this front.

If I tried to talk about the kidnapper, I’d spoil it — if I tried to talk about Helen’s family, I’d fail. I can’t summarize what Sutton did there (I was reductionistic enough with the police — and I’d still be reductionistic if I’d included everything I wanted to say about them) — I’ve known men like her father and older brother. I could feel their pain, their frustration — with their life in general, even before Helen’s abduction, which just seemed like the next-to-last straw for them. Between Foot and Mouth, general hardships (physical and financial) related to this lifestyle, too much alcohol, and a wife who wants more than all this — it’s just too much for people to take.

The depiction of Helen is really strong, as well — she is a scared twelve year-old doing the best she can in a horrible circumstance. At some point the police don’t understand why she did X in a situation. I wanted to yell at them, “because she’s a scared little kid!” Of course, she’s not going to act like a rational adult. (The other thing I had a hard time buying was that given the emphasis the officers put on local knowledge, was that it was the outsider who understood the importance of getting his cows milked to a dairy farmer)

I’ve gone on too long, and haven’t said nearly enough. So let’s hit the important things as I try to wrap up.As I said at the outset — this is not a typical kidnapping novel. Every assumption you make early on in the book will prove to be mistaken, but it all feels organic, it all seemed natural. This isn’t one of those books where you can see the author moving pieces around to achieve her ends. I have no doubt she did — but I couldn’t see it. There’s some good action, some very clever policework, and a strong psychological-thriller bent to parts of this as well. There’s a strong Perry Mason-esque quality to the strategy the police employed at the end, which I appreciated. Burning Secrets ticks almost every box a mystery-fan will have on their list.

This is a novel about family secrets, family problems — all families, on some level, I’m sure. There are strong threads about options various women take to take care of their families and themselves — what lengths they may go to, what shortcuts they may take, what hard choices they may make — to secure happiness, health, or survival. This is a novel about change — individual and societal — how difficult that is. But none of these themes detract from a heart-stopping and heart-breaking story about a kidnapping and the consequences radiating from it. All in less than 300 pages — not a bad feat.

I have no idea if Sutton intends to write more about these characters (there’s every reason to think she will, given her track record) — but I’d love to spend more time with them. If Penrose and Pritchard can turn their détente into some sort of working understanding, or better, a real partnership, they’d be a fantastic combination (for drama, they’d still be interesting if they don’t form any closer relationship, but it wouldn’t be as fun to read). Sutton does have a pretty hefty backlist, and I should try to dive in — and you should, too. Start with this, though, it’ll whet your appetite for the rest.

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4 Stars
My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided.