BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Mama’s Gone by Leopold Borstinski

Today I welcome the Book Tour for the latest entry of the Lagotti Family saga, Mama’s Gone by Leopold Borstinski. Along with this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit.

Book Details:

Book Title: Mama’s Gone by Leopold Borstinski
Publisher: Sobriety Press
Release date: March 18, 2019
Format: Ebook
Length: 301 pages

Book Blurb:

When children grow up, the parents must die.

California gang leader Mary Lou has built a criminal empire while her adult children are desperate for their mother’s attention and love.

As her mental faculties wane, Alice and Frank Jr must acknowledge their mother is not the woman she once was and that they need to step up and take the helm, despite the stark differences between them.

But their sibling rivalry blinds both of them to their weaknesses which threatens the family when the Russian mob moves into the state. How can they fend off those attacks while fighting to decide who will lead the family now their dear Mama’s gone?

About Leopold Borstinski:

Leopold BorstinskiLeopold Borstinski is an independent author whose past careers have included financial journalism, business management of financial software companies, consulting and product sales and marketing, as well as teaching.

There is nothing he likes better so he does as much nothing as he possibly can. He has travelled extensively in Europe and the US and has visited Asia on several occasions. Leopold holds a Philosophy degree and tries not to drop it too often.

He lives near London and is married with one wife, one child and no pets.

Leopold Borstinski’s Social Media:

Twitter ~ Facebook ~ Website ~ Amazon Author Page

Purchase Links for Mama’s Gone:

Amazon UK ~ Amazon US ~ Goodreads


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

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Killing State by Judith O’Reilly: I Can’t Suitably Encapsulate this Gripping Thriller

Killing StateKilling State

by Judith O’Reilly
Series: Michael North, #1

Kindle Edition, 496 pg.
Head of Zeus, 2019

Read: March 5 – 7, 2019

           “You should come with me.”

He turned over the offer in his mind.

Why would he?

Because she was stop-your-heart beautiful.

Then again, the world teemed with beautiful women. Because he wanted to know how it ended.

Badly, he predicted.

What happens when an assassin doesn’t get the expected reaction from his target? Honor Jones, MP, tells him to let her finish her cigarette and asks him a question, “Where’s Peggy?” The assassin in question, Michael North, doesn’t know who Peggy is, much less where she is. What he does know is that he can’t kill this woman — maybe it’s because (unlike the rest of his targets) he wasn’t given a reason for her execution, maybe it’s her attitude, maybe he’s just getting tired of killing (not to be confused with Martin Q. Blank’s newfound respect for life) — certainly her beauty doesn’t hurt.

His refusal to kill her doesn’t go down well with his employer — an extra-governmental body dedicated to the preservation of the British government. That morning, he’s contacted in person with strict instructions to get the job done or face the (fatal) consequences. Instead, North tried to get her out of the country and ends up saving her from a different assassin. Not very shockingly, North also finds instructions to kill him on this assassin’s corpse. By this point, North is smitten with Honor and is committed (whether either of them consciously realize it) to helping her survive and find her friend Peggy.

At the moment, it’s clear that Honor’s search for her dear friend is tied to the kill order. Peggy’s an astronomer, largely apolitical, and not tied to any endeavor that would normally put her on the radar of anyone outside of astronomical/academic circles. Nevertheless, she’s somehow set these dominoes falling, and now Honor and North are running from killers across the country as they seek to learn why Peggy has disappeared.

This hunt for Peggy will push North and Honor to — and past — their limits. It will see them both injured. Both under threat of grave bodily harm (and death) through violence — and both will have to take steps to defend themselves. Around them, the culture and government face shifts and challenges from within that threaten to change everything that Britons know about themselves. On top of all that — there are some great character moments, real growth and change that happen ways that you can believe — not just the clear result of authorial fiat, but because that’s what happens when people face what they did.

Plots involving large-scale conspiracies frequently leave me cold — O’Reilly not only convinces me that her conspiracy is worth reading, but she’s effective enough with it to make me enjoy it. I struggle to accept plots involving psychiatric professionals and loved ones trying to convince a character that the reality they know (and the audience knows) isn’t real, but is the result of delusion brought on by some psychological condition. Now this one isn’t as involved as say, “Normal Again” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s there — and O’Reilly sticks with it long enough to accomplish what she needs to for her story, but she doesn’t milk drama out of it. There are a few other things like this — tricks, plotlines, tropes — that I typically avoid or get annoyed by, but I accepted and enjoyed here.

My notes are filled with “O’Reilly isn’t going to try ___, is she?” entries, followed by “Yeah, she is — and it works.” She squeezes in so many of these things that I’m tempted to doubt my memory about them — and I’m writing this less than a day after I read it! For reasons of space, time, and readability I’ve limited myself in what I’ve addressed in this post. I had a lot of other things I wanted to say, and even had drafts talking about. But I ended up restricting myself — not just because of spoilers (though, as always, that’s part of it) — but because O’Reilly stuffs this novel with so many ideas, plot points and details that I can’t talk about it all without the post becoming unreadable. I don’t know how she manages to put it all in while maintaining the pounding pace. It’s truly noteworthy and laudable that she pulls it off. I can’t even express this without producing an ungainly paragraph.

Michael North is a larger-than-life character, but honestly more grounded in reality than many assassin/lone warrior types in Thriller fiction. Part of that comes from O’Reilly’s restraint in describing him — he’s never depicted as anything superlative. He’s simply a skilled and surprisingly dedicated combat veteran in a series of tight situations that even he is shocked that he survives as long as he does.

Similarly, Honor is one of many beautiful women in the world (as North himself notes above) — she’s one of many dedicated elected public servants, she’s one of many people who’ve overcome difficult pasts thanks to the help of a friend/loved one. She also isn’t depicted as a superlative anything — just the right person in the right place at the right time. Even if that right place is in front of Michael North’s knife. And yes, the name Honor is ripe with possibilities and symbolism — O’Reilly takes advantage of it. Not as much as some authors would’ve, but she gets her money’s worth out of the name.

There is an plausibility-stretching character — a young computer whiz (actually, she’s something beyond whiz, but I can’t think of a term that fits her), who North allies himself with temporarily. But between her attitude and role in the overall story, I can’t see any reader not suspending disbelief enough to embrace her.

Most of this book takes place in moral gray areas (as it almost has to given North’s profession), but that doesn’t stop O’Reilly’s villains from clearly being villains and her heroes clearly being heroic. Killing State doesn’t try to go for some sort of situational ethics or a “yes, but” approach to the morality of te characters — which may or may not have been successful.

The plot moves like the proverbial roller coaster — ups, downs, rushes, and loops all at a pace that you just hope to keep up with. Fair warning — once the hook is set (and it’ll be early on), you won’t want to put the book down and you’ll likely get in trouble with deadlines and schedules. Things won’t really end the way you expect them to — I had a handful of expected conclusions that I had to discard along the way (although some I didn’t have to discard until the last moments) — but when you’re finished with the book, you’ll likely realize that there’s no other way for things to have fallen out.

There’s a sequel expected later this year — I honestly can’t imagine that it’ll be able to live up to this. But I wouldn’t put it past O’Reilly to confound my expectations again. I had a lot of fun with this novel and was regularly impressed with O’Reilly (and North and Honor). I expect that I’m not alone, and soon I’ll see a lot of very positive buzz surrounding this book.


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

—–

4 Stars

Head of Zeus
Love Books Group

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Killing State by Judith O’Reilly

Today I welcome the Book Tour for the gripping Killing State by Judith O’Reilly. Along with this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit.

Book Details:

Book Title: Killing State by Judith O’Reilly
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Release date: March 7, 2019
Format: Hardcover/ebook
Length: 496 pages
Killing State Cover

Book Blurb:

WHAT IF THE PERSON YOU’RE ORDERED TO KILL IS THE WOMAN YOU WANT TO PROTECT?

Michael North, assassin and spy-for-hire, is very good at killing bad guys. But what happens when his shadowy bosses at the dark heart of the post-Brexit British government, order him to kill an innocent woman and North can’t bring himself to do it?

The woman is rising political star, Honor Jones, MP. She has started asking dangerous questions about the powerful men running her country. The trouble is, Honour doesn’t know when to stop. And, now that he’s met her, neither does North…

Praise for Killing State:

“A terrific future-shock thriller.” Lee Child
“Fast-paced and packed with action.” Mick Herron
“A gritty, action-packed page-turner.” Andy McNab
“New thriller writers come and go. I suspect this lady will stick around.” Frederick Forsyth
“Thought-provoking, pacy and thrilling.” Sunday Mirror
“Gripping and twisty” India Knight
“Grabs you from page one and won’t let you go… Action-packed from start to finish – but with tenderness and great characterisation too. Fast, sharply-written, clever and intense.” Jeremy Vine, BBC2
“A high-octane plot that centres around the dark heart of British political power. A great debut.” Sunday Times

About Judith O’Reilly:

Judith O'ReillyJudith O’Reilly is the author of Wife in the North, a top-three Sunday Times bestseller and BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Judith is a former political producer with BBC 2’s Newsnight and ITN’s Channel 4 News, and, when she isn’t writing novels, she writes for The Sunday Times. Judith lives in Durham.

Judith O’Reilly’s Social Media:

Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook



My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Head of Zeus
Love Books Group

Fahrenbruary Repost: The Tainted Vintage by Clare Blanchard: A Promising Introduction to a series about crime fighting in the Czech Republic


The Tainted VintageThe Tainted Vintage

by Clare Blanchard
Series: Dvorska & Dambersky, #1

Kindle Edition, 159 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: September 11, 2018
In the first chapter, we’re treated to a better synopsis than I could cook up, so let me just borrow it. One night in the little town of Vinice, in the Czech Republic, the mayor dies during his birthday party:

Dvorska was sure that she and Ivan had been sent there for the sake of appearances, because a dead mayor was by definition high profile, and of course because no-one else wanted to touch it. She wondered why they had been called out at all, so soon. The fat feminist and the misogynist – what a team. And of course Dambo, as the senior of the two, would call the shots, so her hands would be tied. Perfect. The sudden death of a rich and powerful local figure was hardly a magnet for rising-star detectives.

Dvorska picks up a clue or two that convinces her — and then Dambersky — that this death was not due to natural causes. The Powers That Be don’t want to hear such a thing, and rule otherwise. So this very unlikely duo has to embark on an unauthorized investigation — not just unauthorized, but prohibited — into the murder.

Finding the murderer of a man who died of natural causes isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish, obviously — it’s hard to ask too many questions without a “Hey, he wasn’t murdered, why are you asking?” coming up. So the partners have to be wily — not just with their superior officer, but with witnesses, possible suspects, and everyone else they encounter.

The investigation takes them to various cities, a variety of social classes, and even ends up giving them a few history lessons. The mayor’s home has ties to significant (at least to Vinice) historical movements, going back to World War II, the Communist takeover, and then once the Republic took over. This really helps the reader — particularly the reader who knows almost nothing about the Czech Republic — find themselves, not only in the geography but the history (cultural and otherwise). obviously, I’m no expert on the Czech Republic,, but I can understand a little more than I used to. Just the first couple of usages of “Perv” to indicate an illegal drug threw me — but between the narrator finally calling it Pervityn and a search engine, I got a little lesson in drugs during WWII.

It doesn’t take long for the book to try to get the reader on the side of these two characters — maybe there’s more to them than the “fat feminist and the misogynist.” I really found myself enjoying them as people, not just as detectives. We spend — for reasons that will become clear when you read this — more time with Dvorska than her partner, and she is a charming, dedicated detective, fully aware of her limitations and sure how to overcome them.

The writing was good but I thought it could be sharper — there’s an odd word choice or two (early on, the detectives start talking about the mayor’s death being an execution, not a murder); there’s a lot of recapping/rehashing something that was just done/considered/decided a page or two earlier — the kind of thing that makes sense for serialized novels, but this doesn’t appear to be on. Still, the voice is engaging, as is the story — and you get caught up enough in it that you can easily ignore a few things that’d normally bug you.

I was caught totally off-guard by the ending. I didn’t expect that to happen at all — my notes toward the end feature short words like “what” and”why?” But primarily my notes consist of question marks, exclamation points, and combinations thereof. This is a great sign for mystery and thriller novels. Blanchard did a great job setting things up so that there’s a dramatic reveal and one that isn’t seen chapters away. I do think some more ground work could have been laid early on so that it didn’t seem quite so out of nowhere. But it was effective enough, that I really don’t want to complain about it.

This is a pleasant read — it’s close enough to being a cozy that I could recommend it to friends who predominately read those, and twisted enough that those with more grizzled tastes can sink their teeth into it, too. The characters are winning, charming and the kind that you want to spend time with. It’s a good introduction to a series exotic enough for most English readers to feel “alien” and yet full of enough things so you don’t feel cut off from what you know. There are obviously future cases for these two in the works, and I plan on getting my hands on them when I can.

—–

3 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Rubicon by Ian Patrick: A thrill-ride that will stay with you long after the action ends.

I bought this shortly after it was released, and then let it collect e-dust on my e-reader, and pretty much used Damp Pebbles’ Book Tour for this as my excuse to read it. I wasn’t over the moon with this one, but I liked it a lot. And then I spent months thinking about it until the sequel came out. Batford’s the kind of character that will not move out of your headspace like any respectable character does when you start a new book. Rather, he’ll take up residence — scratch that, he’ll squat there, not allowing the lease holder to get comfortable sharing the space with him…. I think this metaphor has gotten out of hand, so I’m going to shut up and get on with the post.

RubiconRubicon

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: May 31 – June 2, 2018

. . . there’s no money in policing unless you cross the line.

But that doesn’t mean that Sam Batford isn’t going to try.

Batford is an undercover police officer who’s after a kingpin of some repute and his guns and drugs importing. DCI Klara Winter is a no-nonsense head of a task force going after the same kingpin, Big H, more directly — phone taps, applying pressure to associates, interrogations, etc. Batford is assigned to her task force to supplement their intelligence. Neither want this assignment, and work to undermine it immediately. They do actually help each other out — but it’s almost despite their best efforts. Their mutual dislike, distrust and antagonism is one of the more interesting dynamics that I’ve run across lately.

We see most of the novel through Batford’s eyes, with the occasional glimpse from Winter’s perspective. It doesn’t take much to get a strong sense of Winter’s personality and thought process. Just from the volume, the reader ends up seeing things Batford’s way — whether or not they should.

Batford infiltrates Big H’s organization — at least to a degree — for one job. A large one, no doubt, one that would secure Winter’s career (and would do his own some favors). Like most undercover officers (especially in fiction), he cuts many legal and ethical corners to do so. There’s some question — as there should be — whether or not Big H really trusts him, and the constant testing, evaluation and insecurity makes for great reading — it’s an atmosphere you can almost feel through the words.

So Batford is doing what he can to get enough information to take down Big H, to gain his trust (and therefore access), to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns — and mostly to stay alive. If he can find a way to make a little money while he’s at it . . . well, he might as well. Winter just wants enough evidence to make some arrests — and maybe some headlines — so she can get the budget to keep her team working.

This is not a book for the squeamish — there are a few scenes I know that would cause some of my friends and readers to throw the book down in disgust (the same scenes will cause other friends/readers to fist pump their excitement — I’m not sure which of these bothers me more). There’s one scene in particular that made me think of the dental scene from Marathon Man (I’ve never watched the movie just in case they nail that scene from the novel).

There were two . . . I don’t want to say problems for me, but things that kept me from going over the moon with Rubicon: Batford works his way into this assignment by worming his way in to the trust of one Big H’s associates while they’re in Bali. Do Metropolitan Police Undercover Officers really get to globe-trot the way that Batford does? Is that a bit of Artistic License? Is it a sign of just how far outside the lines that Batford colors? Does it tell us that he’s not just a Metropolitan Police Officer? It’s a minor point, I admit — and it’s really easy to accept as kosher (but that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder), because watching Batford’s machinations there is fascinating.

Secondly, Batford displays a very particular vocabulary — I’m not sure if it’s London slang, or Ian Patrick-slang. I could believe either. I will admit that there were periods that the slang got in the way of the story. That’s probably on me — and some of it is Shaw’s two countries separated by a common language phenomenon. With a little bit of work, and a small amount of guesswork (and a willingness to go back and revisit a passage later), it was all accessible enough and perspicuous.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about — I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s going to take a few more at least. Patrick’s characters take a little chewing, I think. It’d be easy to put Batford in the “murky anti-hero” category and move on — but I’m not sure he fits there; I’m even less sure where Winter fits — she’s not the straight-laced cop you’re at first tempted to label her, nor is she just the figure that makes life difficult for our anti-hero to do what he wants (although she functions pretty well that way). But even if/when I decide how to categorize these two — then I have to decide what I think of them as these characters — are they good people? No. That’s easy. Are they good fictional beings in their particular roles? My gut says yes, and my brain leans that way, but I’m still working on that.

Either way, I’m enjoying chewing on the novel and these ideas — and I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book, just having to think about it this much.

There is part of this evaluation that’s easy — the writing? Gripping. The pacing? Once it gets going, it’s a runaway train that you’re just hoping you can hang on to long enough to get through to the end. The narrative voice is as strong as you could ask, and even when you’re thinking this cop might be more deserving of a being handcuffed on his way to a long incarceration than his targets, you’ll need to hear his singular perspective on the events around him.

Strong writing (some of my favorite sentences of the year are in this book), characters that demand thinking about, a plot that you can’t wrap up in a tidy bow — this isn’t your typical thriller. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s one that you won’t forget easily.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: The TV Detective by Simon Hall: A Murder. A Reporter. A Police Detective. Maybe the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Meet Dan Groves, a good reporter with a good dog. Which is enough reason to read the book, but there are others, too, as I was happy to discover.

The TV DetectiveThe TV Detective

by Simon Hall
Series: The TV Detective, #1
Kindle Edition, 290 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

The first interview with a witness.

Or, as Breen had put it, ‘Initially a witness, anyway.’

‘Meaning?’ Dan asked, as they walked down the stairs from the MIR.

‘It’s remarkable how quickly a witness can become a suspect in this business.’

All it needed was a musical sting to emphasise the drama of the detective’s words. Dan was beginning to suspect his new colleague was a frustrated actor. He certainly enjoyed a little theatre.

Dan deposited the thought safely in his mental bank. It might just be useful.

Carter Ross, I. M. Fletcher, Annie Seymour, and Jack McEvoy are my favorite reporters who happen to find themselves in the middle of criminal investigations (“find themselves” is typically code for throw themselves into, slip past the all the blockades surrounding, etc.) — I think Dan Groves has added himself to the list. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dan Groves is a TV Reporter for Wessex Tonight, covering environmental news. With the Christmas holiday rapidly approaching, he’s forced to help cover the latest in a string of attacks on prostitutes. He and his cameraman/friend Nigel are found taking a less-than by-the-book approach to getting a colleague of the latest victim on camera (really, Nigel didn’t do anything — but he didn’t stop Dan, either). The story they aired was good, but their tactics were reported — between his editor’s need, his skill, and his editor’s fresh material for leverage — Dan’s taken off the Environment beat and made the program’s new crime reporter.

The problem is, he knows nothing about reporting on Crimes. And demonstrates it with a facepalm-worthy performance at his first crime scene (a murder, of course) after getting this assignment. So he pitches this idea to his editor, who in turn runs it by the local police. The police haven’t been looking good to the (and in the) press lately, Dan needs a crash course in detective work — so why doesn’t he shadow the investigation, giving the police some good coverage and PR while he learns on the job from the best around. DCI Breen — and (the underused) DS Suzanne Stewart — aren’t crazy about this idea, but they aren’t really in a position to argue with the brass, so they bring him on. Tolerating his presence largely at the beginning, but gradually finding ways to use him.

This is one of those cases that the police would probably be okay with not solving — at least most of the police. Edward Bray was in Real Estate — he owned many buildings, treated his tenants horribly and evicted them when he could find a way to make more money off of the land/building. He was heartless, notorious, and had an enemies list worthy of a, well, an unscrupulous land-owner. Yet, he also gave generously to a local hospice — so generously that many people had a reflexive notion to commend him while they suffered cognitive dissonance between his perceived nature as a shark, and his obvious and selfless good work with the hospice center. The list of suspects is long — former tenants, an employee, competitors he profited from and ruined, his own father — and the head of the hospice center who chafed under his authoritative hand.

So there’s the setup — a pretty good hook, I have to say. It’s an interesting pairing — Castle-ish, but not as goofy. I could totally buy this without suspending a whole lot of disbelief. The reactions of the other police officers help ground this. So who are the investigators?

First is Dan Groves — he seems to be a decent reporter, we’re told repeatedly that he has a history of looking out for the little guy in his news stories. He’s into the outdoors, hiking and whatnot. He’s very single and has been for some time — there’s a hint of something significant in his past that put him there, but we don’t get into that in this book. I’ve never read about a reporter not wanting the crime beat — it’s the most interesting, right? I just didn’t get his rationale for quite a while. But by the time we’ve heard about a few of his past stories, I guess I could see it (and have to admit that Environmental News sounds pretty dull, but wouldn’t have to be in the right hands). Lastly, Dan has a German Shepherd named Rutherford, who seems like a great dog. This speaks volumes for him.

DCI Adam Breen is your typical driven detective — stern, unbending (at first, anyway), not that crazy about the unusual staffing on his inquiry. He has a flair for the dramatic (as noted above — but it’s worse), seems to spend more time and money on clothing than most (somewhere, Jerry Edgar is fist pumping the idea that he’s not alone). We eventually get to know a little about him outside the job — and it seems to go well with the character we’ve met. He seems like the kind of detective most police departments could use more of. Breen will warm to Groves (and vice versa) and will find ways to use his strengths, as Groves finds ways to flex them.

DS Suzanne Stewart, on the other hand, is little more than a name and a presence. Hall needs to find a way to use her character in the future or drop her. This character is the biggest problem with the book. Not an insurmountable one, or one that greatly detracts from the book, but still. I get that Hall’s priority was establishing the relationship between Groves and Breen — and he nailed that. But he could’ve given us more of Stewart along the way. We could also use a little more development with Nigel and Dan’s editor, Lizzie — but I honestly didn’t notice how underused they were. Stewart stuck out to me.

Hall does a really good job of balancing the murder inquiry and dealing with the characters outside of the case — Breen off-duty, Dan’s blossoming personal life, another story or two that Dan works on. The suspects are well-developed and interesting — and there are times that you could totally buy all of them (well, maybe all but one) as the actual perpetrator. That’s really hard to pull off, many writers will start off with a long list of suspects and really only have one or two that you can believe being the killer after one conversation. They all have similar but individualized reasons to want Bray dead. Most of them also have strong alibis, because you don’t want this to be easy. The solution to the case is clever — and better yet, the way that Groves and Breen have to work together to get the solution proven is well executed.

Hall’s writing is confident and well-paced. He knows how to use characters and plot to strengthen each other. There are occasional turns of phrase that will really make the day of readers. I have a lot of “oh, that’s nice” notes throughout the book. This is a solid start to a series — the kind that makes me want to read more. I’m looking forward to finding out a little more about Dan’s history as well as seeing the relationship between he and DCI Breen grow and change (and be challenged, I assume). Good stuff.

—–

4 Stars

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

I originally posted about this for a blog tour — one of those that I ended up being very glad I participated in, this atmospheric mystery is one to check out.

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.