Pick of the Month: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Each month we choose one book you absolutely can not miss. This month Meike has reviewed that pick, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, for the blog. It’s out February 20th and you can pre-order now.

9780062389923Laura Lippman’s latest, Sunburn, just might be the perfect beach read. It takes off gradually, allowing the tension to build slowly, until the story plunges the reader into a roller coaster thrill ride with countless twists and turns before smoothly bringing him or her to a satisfying conclusion.  You can no more put this book down than you can stop the ride from hurtling forward.

But Sunburn is so much more—it’s a masterwork of modern noir, invoking the style of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Make no mistake—this is a dark tale of secrets and lies with its share of dead bodies.  It’s not the coaster at a shiny clean mega theme park; the tone reflects a slightly more frightening rickety coaster ride at a second-rate theme park that has seen better days.  Lippman masterfully evokes the shadier side of summer with this searing tale of secrets and passion.

The story begins with Polly, a mysterious redhead who is passing through a small town when she stops in at a bar and meets the equally mysterious Adam; the first thing he notices about her is her sunburned shoulders.  We soon learn that Polly has just abruptly left her husband and young daughter in the midst of a family beach vacation.  The reader also learns that Adam is a private investigator who has been hired to find Polly, but we don’t know by whom. They both realize that a relationship between them threatens the secrets they’re trying to keep, yet they succumb to their mutual attraction and a heated affair ensues.  They decide to stay in town for a bit and take jobs in the local diner.  As their relationship unfolds, each is unsure about the other’s motivations; we slowly learn just how many secrets each is keeping from the other.  There are no heroes here—both characters are deeply flawed, and we’re not really sure to what extent each is simply playing the other.  Lippman keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Laura Lippman  was a reporter for twenty years before turning to writing full time.  She is the critically acclaimed author of the Tess Monaghan series as well as nine standalone crime novels.  Her body of work has received countless awards and Sunburn is sure to receive its share of accolades.

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All Too Real: The Power of Voice and Sisterhood in Julie Buntin’s Marlena

Marlena by Julie Buntin made my top ten list for 2017 and with good reason.  Marlena, Buntin’s debut novel, is anything but a beginner’s work.  It is filled with wisdom, finely crafted, and utterly heartbreaking in the best of ways.  This is a book I have read countless times, one of those books I turn to for comfort and solace even if sometimes they hold exactly the opposite of this.  Buntin’s novel is a miracle and a masterwork, and the reasons behind this are both incredibly obvious and entirely elusive.

The novel revolves around a woman named Cat, who now lives and works in New York City, but once lived in a podunk town in Michigan where she was forced to struggle to get along with a dysfunctional mother and a less than satisfactory life.  Eventually—well, almost immediately—Cat meets Marlena, and a beautiful but terrifying friendship begins.  It is known from the beginning that Marlena will die.  It is known from the beginning that her death will be tragic, and that it will haunt Cat for the rest of her life.  It is known from the beginning that this is not a happy story, and perhaps these are the reasons I consider it a genuinely real crime novel: the fact that this book is filled with the inevitable darkness that envelops us all, the ways our mistakes come back to haunt us, and of course, you know, there’s crime in the novel.  So, there’s that.

Buntin is a master at writing.  Her prose is lyrical, and there have been several sentences I have read again and again (having read the book maybe six times now easily since its publication last year) where I have said, aloud, to myself or my partner, “I wish I had written that. I wish I could write that. Write like this.” It’s true. I wish I could write as effortlessly, as flawlessly, as Julie Buntin. There is no doubt this novel was years in the making, but it feels as effortless as a quickly jotted down diary entry (that has been meticulously planned, scrutinized and understood again and again to perfection).  The perfection of the prose is not off-putting or unfortunate in any way.  Instead, it feels like a woman trapped in a past that is imperfect, telling her story in the most brilliant way possible.

How many stories have we read about young women and their friendships gone wrong? Megan Abbott has a novel coming out this year (and Abbott has praised Marlena, if that’s not a reason to purchase it alone) about a friendship turned upside down by a crime.  There are, of course, numerous—maybe innumerable—other novels, including other books coming out this year.  But Marlena stands out to me in a way similar, but different, than Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand.  It is a divine examination of a friendship gone wrong, a love lost—not necessarily a romantic love, not necessarily I say again, but something more profound.  An instant in one’s life that has changed this woman forever, and that she can never get back, and never be unchanged by.

Similarly, I cannot be unchanged now that I have read Julie Buntin’s beautiful book.  Cat’s voice is as alive as the voice in my head.  Buntin’s first novel more than delivers: she excels, she succeeds, she is the Superman of debut novelists.  I do not regret a single time I’ve read Marlena again and again.  The most beautiful part of the novel is how genuine and authentic the novel feels, like this is a true story—and who knows, there may be lots of truth to it.  No, I take this back—any book this real, this alive, leaping from the pages, has to be based on some experience Buntin or any other remarkable writer has felt in his or her life: we are lucky to have Buntin to express this truth for us.

Top of Her Game: Alafair Burke’s The Wife

There comes a time in every prolific author’s career when one has to ask “Is there any way for this author to get better? To improve upon their most recent work? To actually write something better than this?” For some writers, they go downhill after their peak—other authors only rise, never reaching that peak exactly (see wonderful examples like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Alex Marwood, and Megan Abbott).  The question now is: has Alafair Burke reached her peak? I sincerely doubt it—a writer of her talent can most likely reach unimaginable heights—yet it is incredibly hard to fathom Burke improving upon her most recent masterpiece, The Wife.

Burke kicks off the year in the grandest fashion, with a book that will compel you to the very end, even without a murder in its very beginning.  From the moment the book begins, we know that Burke’s protagonist has committed perhaps the ultimate betrayal—that against herself, lying for her husband’s defense. I have read this book countless times, as I tend to do before beginning a review, and it never ceases to amaze me—the language is fluid and nearly flawless, drawing the reader in.  The narrator, while incredibly deluded and not necessarily the picture-perfect definition of a feminist, is incredibly relatable.  The book speaks to the issues of our times, many of them dealing with women, rape, infidelity, and the permanence of love.

From the very beginning of the novel, I was roped in.  The reader is startled by the way Burke can transform the most mundane scenes into something extraordinary, ripping out incredible portions of her character’s psyches in ways you would never expect.  I was floored again and again as revelation after revelation was revealed, chapter after chapter.  The book is such a quick read that, when finished, I felt compelled to start it over immediately, unsure if I had finished the novel or just begun.

This is not to say the novel is without a conclusion.  Boy, does it have a conclusion.  Alafair Burke is a master at revealing tiny little secrets that are actually big explosions, unraveling and unraveling her characters and plot until, once untangled, the reader is finally able to uncover the truth.  You think you know the truth from the beginning, and then you might change your mind in the middle, and then be completely floored by the end of the book by the smallest, slightest turn of the story: this is how The Wife works.  And I’m not afraid to call it a new masterpiece of the crime genre.

This past award season, Alafair Burke was nominated for the Edgar for The Ex, which works as a sort of companion novel to The Wife.  They feature similar characters, they are placed in similar settings, but these novels are completely different (and equally brilliant).  Here’s the only issue: this is the year of the female crime writer.  So while I would say that Alafair Burke has the Edgar in the bag, with masterpieces like Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released soon, it’s hard to tell which author will come out on top.  What’s amazing about the crime community is: no one cares.  Each of these authors are improving daily, each new book proving that the preceding novel was only a precursor to something much more amazing and fantastic than the book that came before.  And Alafair Burke proves this beyond a doubt.  From the very beginning, you are hooked.  From the very beginning, you are roped in.  And it’s all Alafair’s fault.

Burke’s newest novel is mind-blowing, spine-tinglingly good and awe-inspiring in ways that very few authors can aspire to be.  Pick up this book and find yourself lost in it.  Pick up this book and hours later, wonder where you have been, and how you got there.  This is the magic that Alafair Burke works in The Wife, which may very well be the Book of the Year.

Book Review: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke

After close to five years, James Lee Burke brings back his Iberia Parrish sheriff’s detective, Dave Robicheaux, simply using his last name for the title of the hero’s twenty-first mystery. On the surface, Burke appears to be playing many of the series’ old standards: colorful, knuckle-dragging gangsters, old money families, and ghosts of both the Civil War and Civil Rights south. However, changing times have brought those standards to new light with Burke giving them a more complex examination.

He layers plot upon plot, making Dave’s life even more miserable than usual. We find him grieving Molly, the the third wife he’s buried. He confronts the man who hit her in a car accident that killed her, then slips from his sobriety. Dragged out of his drunken black out, he visits the crime scene of a man beaten to death. He recognizes him as the driver and notices the bruises on his own knuckles.

Since he’s a suspect, he can’t be put on that case and has to look into a rape accusation. The accuser is the wife of his friend, Levon Broussard, a novelist with liberal leanings that only come in second to the romanticism of this family’s confederate past. The accused is another contemporary, Jimmy Nightingale, a charmer from an old money family with ambition going in several directions, a senate seat currently one of them. Before his black out, Dave set up a dinner with all involved to help out his train wreck of a buddy Clete. Jimmy held the mortgage on his Clete’s house, but wanted to option one of Levon’s books for a movie he would do with Tony Nemo, a mobster with movie ambitions. Toss in some unsolved murders, a white supremacist leader, a scary hired killer with a code, and a murdered New Orleans pimp that ties most of it together and you have the makings of a quintessential Robicheaux novel. One could argue that the choice of title comes from a delivery of the elements we expect.

As we are hit with many of the reoccurring tropes and themes of the books, hero, writer, and reader now have more complicated views of them. As in one of the more lauded novels, In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead, a movie dealing with the Civil War is being filmed, this time with Robicheaux’s daughter Alifair working on the screenplay. As in that book, Dave sees the ghosts of “boys in butternut”, but Alifair wonders if they can make movie heroes out of the Confederates who are “today’s Nazi’s”. Much like Levon, Dave can’t help but hold onto their gallantry. For Levon, though, it goes deeper. It’s where his demons rest and can be easily awakened to challenge his better angels. Jimmy Nightshade uses that heritage and populism to be one of the scariest power brokers Dave’s gone up against. He has an ability to sweep up the masses into believing him as a savior for the new south, especially the disenfranchised. Dave observes his constituents at a rally.

His adherents wore baseball caps and T-shirts and tennis shoes and dresses made in Thailand. Walmart, a smartphone, a Tundra, and bread and circuses were symbols; they were a culture. The poorest neighborhoods in the state always had a coin-operated car wash. In twenty-four hours, a drop in oil prices could take everything they owned. They were the bravest people on earth, bar none. They got incinerated in oil-well blowouts, crippled by tongs and chains on the drill floor, and hit by lightning laying pipe in a swamp in the middle of an electric storm, and they did it all without complaint. If you wanted to win a revolution, this was the bunch to get on your side. The same could be said if you wanted to throw the Constitution in the trash can.

It’s difficult not to think of another politician and election when reading this passage.

With everything going on, the focus of the story is Dave’s relationship with his former NOPD partner Clete Pucel. Clete, working as a private detective, imbibes in every vice Robicheaux struggles to avoid. He often operates as a violent Falstaff to our hero in the series, yet Dave views him as the noblest man he knows. Their friendship is rooted in the that they each understand the other  better than themselves. Clete is the first to see through Jimmy and makes it a personal mission to be a thorn in his side, while Robicheaux is partially taken in by the southern gentility he pretends to reject. Jimmy and Levon are darker mirrors of Dave, with the reflection of Clete being the way to lead him out of the fun house. It is their friendship and acceptance that leads to any form of justice or grace in the book.

Robicheaux proves that James Lee Burke’s hero can be timeless yet delve deep within his time. He is practically a Greek hero, enduring tragedies, stuck between the wars of petty gods, with the Achilles heel of alcoholism. He may be a step behind the times, but only adds to his complexity and character. He has aged well with his humor and full heart intact. May we be so lucky in our worlds that grow more messy and complicated.

January Pick of the Month: DOMINIC

In Hollow Man, Mark Pryor broke from his square-jawed series hero Hugo Marston to enter the mind of prosecutor/musician/sociopath Dominic. The book showed another side and style to his talent. Now, this new year brings us the return of his anti-hero in Dominic.
The book takes place soon after the robbery, cover up, and revenge Dominic committed in Hollow Man, with him facing a few loose ends. A police detective keeps questioning Dominic while Bobby, a young man with his tendencies, keeps getting into trouble, and –most worrisome — Bobby’s sister, who Dominic seems attracted to, keeps reminding him she knows what he did. Add a position for judgeship and our man begins to maneuver.
Pryor seems to have tapped into Hitchcock as he builds his intricate tale. He piles layer upon layer of plot and tension effortlessly, yet never revealing what he intends to do until the moment of truth. Knowing that we’ve learned Dominic’s narration obfuscates from Hollow Man, he gives us differing points of view in each chapter. We are given a clearer view of the persona he exudes and where the cracks in his mask are that add to the tension. It also allows us to feel the moral blow back of Dominic’s crimes since we learn to understand his victims the way he can’t. Much like The Master Of Suspense, Pryor allows our anxiety to move between Dominic getting caught or his victims getting killed.
The book’s succinct prose and stylish black humor cut to the bone and into the dark heart of our anti-hero. We find ourselves colluding with him, even though we know better and feel the results. With Dominic, Mark Pryor once again proves to be at his best when he is writing about the worst.
Mark Pryor will be at BookPeople with Meg Gardiner on January 30th at 7pm — join us!

Matthew’s Top 10 of 2017

We struck gold this year when our former co-editor brought Matthew Turbeville into the MysteryPeople fold. He reads a ton of books, has excellent as well as eclectic taste, and is a talented writer. His top ten list for this year has a wide range and celebrates authors who approach the genre from a unique angle.

 

 A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

This is an odd pick for best crime novel of the year, but this is, at its core, a crime novel.  Two families are interconnected by a horrific crime in which one patriarch murders the other for being an abortion provider.  The novel chronicles the lives of these two families as the children of these fathers grow and become intertwined in a dramatic and amazing fashion.  The conclusion to this novel is not to be missed, as it will somehow break your heart and put it back together—uncharacteristic for Joyce Carol Oates, but yet so fitting for this novel and for this time in our country.

 

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Attica Locke has always been a favorite of mine.  With classics like Black Water Rising and The Cutting Season under her belt, Locke has begun what is hopefully a new series with an excellent protagonist—one of the few black Texas rangers, a man struggling to keep his job and wife, a man who will do anything to find some answers—so much so that he is driven to investigate a double homicide, that of a white woman and black man in rural Texas.  You will be biting at the bit to finish this book, with its world-shaking conclusion.

 

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

I first discovered Wiley Cash with his award-winning This Dark Road to Mercy.  In The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash comes back with full force and total talent to invite his reader back into the past this time, to a young woman’s story (about her life and death)—a mother, a lover, a fighter—and a mystery that will unravel and awe you until its amazing conclusion.  

 

 

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Julie Buntin has become my favorite person, as well as writer, over the course of a year.  She has written a classic in the genre of teenaged stories about lost friendship and, frankly, loss.  Buntin writes of a young woman who looks back on her teenaged friendship with the troubled titular character, who is struggling to keep her family together until the fateful conclusion.  This is a book not to be missed, and a book that has made nearly every best-of list this year.  

 

Keep Her Safe by Sophie Hannah

I love Sophie Hannah.  All of her books are written with a sort of eloquence and candidness that envelop the reader.  This book is no different, about a married woman from Britain who escapes her family to come to America only to see a ghost—a woman who was believed to be dead, but is in fact possibly alive.  This book certainly does not disappoint, or ease up, just like Hannah’s earlier works.  

 

 

Blame by Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott sent me an ARC early this year—a copy of his newest book, Blame, his first novel to feature two primary female protagonists who are struggling with the aftermath of a deadly car accident and the loss of a dear loved one—and a crazed killer who will stop at nothing to cover up the truth.  Don’t miss this new classic of the genre.  It certainly was riveting and unstoppable as the events of the book.  

 

 

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough made waves with this tale of intrigue and mystery, told from multiple perspectives about the mysteriousness of a young woman having an affair with a married man, and his wife, who we know little about until the very end of the novel—and boy, is that a twist!

 

 

 

Down City by Leah Carroll

Carroll’s debut, a memoir about losing both of her parents to violence and tragedy of different sorts, is as eye-opening as it is compelling.  Carroll is certainly a talent that one should keep her eye on, as she is working on a novel currently—but don’t look over this instant classic of true crime and loss.  Down City was one of my very favorite books of the year.

 

 

Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda

Ivy Pochoda has had a very good year this year.  Wonder Valley was well received by most critics, acclaimed by fellow authors, and became well known through publicity on early morning television and word-of-mouth.  This book, a crime novel about how we are all interconnected, is the new LA novel, a welcome accompaniment to James Ellroy and Megan Abbott’s earlier work, and an ecstatic read at that.

 

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins’ sophomore effort was a success both financially and critically.  This book, about mysterious drownings, decade old mysteries, and more, is a bit less un-put-down-able than its predecessor, a bit more literary and meticulous in its writing. Hawkins does not disappoint with Into the Water, which was a welcome addition to a year full of wonderful books in 2017.  

Review Of Dead Man’s Blues by Ray Celestin

Ray Celestin’s Dead Man’s Blues is the second in a planned quartet of books, following The Axeman. While I haven’t read the previous novel, this tale of private eyes, Chicago gangsters, and jazz has me wanting to go visit that story set in New Orleans. Dead Man’s Blues stands perfectly on its own.

The book has several plot lines with fiction binding historical elements. One involves two characters from The Axeman, Ida Davis, a light-skinned black woman, and Michael Talbot, an ex cop married to a black woman, both now working at Pinkerton’s. They catch a case of a missing heiress known to frequent the jazz clubs and speakeasies of the city’s black section known as Bronzeville. Dante Sanfelippo, a sharp bootlegger out of New York is called in to help a colleague, Al Capone. A traitor in Al’s midst poisoned a batch of booze sent to the mayor and Dante must ferret out who it is.

The plot lines criss-cross through 1928 Chicago, which acts as a character itself, sometimes as an aide, other times as an obstacle to our investigators. It is portrayed as vibrant, dangerous, and intricate to navigate with differing neighborhoods and societies. Celestin’s tour through the stock yards resembles a descent into Hell. Ida covers more ground with the help of her childhood friend, Louis Armstrong.

Celestin sets out a sprawling tale that shifts from part to another seamlessly, racing toward a beautiful big ending, like a great hot jazz number. Celestin is slated to have two more novels, charting the progression of jazz and the mob in America. I look forward to further lessons.