Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

A reformed drug dealer gets pulled back into the game in this tense, bloody thriller with a strong sense of place and a soft heart.

suitcase

Suitcase City by Sterling Watson (Weep No More My Brother) opens with an extended flashback to protagonist Jimmy Teach’s time in small-town Florida. At the time, Teach has just finished a brief career in professional football and is back in the game of smuggling drugs, or in his words, operating as a “maritime consultant.” When a business deal with Guatemalans goes sour, Teach competently cleans up the mess, and moves on.

The bulk of Teach’s story then takes place nearly 20 years later, in late 1990s Tampa, Fla., where a rundown neighborhood called Suitcase City gives the novel its name. Teach is reformed, more or less: he’s vice-president of sales at a pharmaceutical company and has rebuilt a relationship with his teenaged daughter after his wife’s (her mother’s) death. But a little incident inside a bar one Friday afternoon–a tiny mistake, a single piece of rotten luck–and suddenly Teach finds himself worried about losing his house, his job, the relationship he’s built with his daughter, and maybe his own life.

Suitcase City is nearly halfway over before the reader finds out who Teach’s enemies are and what the present beef is about, but this lengthy plot development is never boring or slow–quite the opposite. Every moment is riveting, making this a difficult book to look up from at all; the reader is every bit as concerned as Teach over the maddening mystery of who or what in his past is pursuing him, and why. To get answers and solutions, Teach has to look into his past as well as consider his future. Along the way, he gets his hands dirty with blood, gore, prostitutes and drug dealers more sophisticated than anyone involved in his “maritime consulting” two decades ago.

Watson’s magic is in pacing and taut prose, in the details that make his Florida setting so compelling–boats and bilge, lobsters and golf–and in a father’s love for his daughter. Diverse characters enliven Teach’s world, including his charming daughter, a pushy reporter and a colorful pair of police detectives who represent a range of competence and demeanor. In the end, Teach is flawed but likable, and Suitcase City is an absorbing thriller, a vivid adventure in a bright, humid, perilous underworld.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 tee times.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Secret Place by Tana French

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

secret

I love Tana French. Obviously I was excited about her latest, which I am accessing via audiobook (because I have loved past audio editions of her work, especially The Likeness).

This one is shaping up to be as good as I’d hoped. Check out this passage about teenaged girls meeting at the mall. Probably we can all recognize the angst…

And at least back when they were twelve they just put on their coats and went. This year, everyone gets ready for the Court like they’re getting ready for the Oscars. The Court is where you bring your bewildering new curves and walk and self so people can tell you what they’re worth, and you can’t risk the answer being Nothing zero nothing. You like so totally have to have your hair either straightened to death or else brushed into a careful tangle, and fake tan all over and an inch of foundation on your face and half a pack of smoky eyeshadow around each eye, and supersoft superskinny jeans and Uggs or Converse, because otherwise someone might actually be able to tell you apart from everyone else and obviously that would make you a total loser.

Stay tuned.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

A modern retelling of Strangers on a Train that is every bit as chilling as the original, with new twists.

killing

In The Kind Worth Killing, a masterful modern reworking of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Peter Swanson (The Girl with a Clock for a Heart) introduces his two protagonists, Ted Severson and Lily Kintner, on an airplane. Ted is a wealthy, successful businessman who discovered that his beautiful bohemian artist wife is cheating on him with the contractor building their new dream home. Lily is a woman with a difficult past–some experience of unhappy families, cheating and murder. Playing a game of truth after several drinks and the full telling of his tale, Ted casually admits, “What I really want to do is kill her.” And that makes sense to Lily: “Everyone dies. What difference does it make if a few bad apples get pushed along a little sooner….”

The resulting intrigues follow Highsmith’s outstanding original in atmosphere and spirit more than in specific details, which is a fine choice, because the new plot lines showcase suspenseful twists and turns, expert pacing and a breathless race to a surprise ending. Thus Swanson brings the best elements of Strangers on a Train–compelling but increasingly worrisome characters, the momentum of a chance meeting–to a fresh new setting, split between the Boston metro area and the rugged coast of Maine. Even readers unfamiliar with Highsmith will be enchanted by this captivating, powerful thriller about sex, deception, secrets, revenge, the strange things we get ourselves wrapped up in, and the magnetic pull of the past.


This review originally ran in the February 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 martinis.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

A delicious, deceptively simple tale of art, crime, love and betrayal.

unbecoming

In the opening pages of Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, Julie from California is working in Paris at an antiques repair shop, polishing and replacing hinges, cleaning beadwork and resetting jewels. Except her name is really Grace, and she’s from Garland, Tennessee. Two young men are about to be paroled from prison in Garland, and Grace is nervous, because her name is not all she’s lying about. From this beginning, we follow Grace back in time: her unhappy home life, her great luck in being loved by a popular boy from a good family, her joy at being his mother’s daughter, her departure for college in New York City, her work in art appraisal and her ignominious retreat from all of the above. Only at the end of the novel do we learn how exactly Grace landed in Paris with a new name, a forged biography and a fear of her past.

Unbecoming is beguiling: a love story with twists and turns; the tale of an insecure, insufficiently loved girl from the wrong side of the tracks; a delightfully nuanced narrative about trust and trustworthiness. Grace is endearing and intriguing, although she is not all (or is more than) she seems. Layers of lies, longing and duplicity recall The Talented Mr. Ripley, another chilling masterpiece of dishonesty’s helpless acceleration. Scherm’s light, confident touch with pacing, suspense and characterization is pitch-perfect. Beware staying up all night to rush through this engrossing, enchanting debut.


This review originally ran in the January 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 trillions.

Teaser Tuesdays: Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

suitcase

From just the first few pages:

They were the easy, pretty people who stopped in at the Cedar Key docks and ate in the restaurants and then sailed on to the next piƱa colada or planter’s punch. Teach called them the Whatever People. Whatever was an attitude, a place where people had enough time and money to let things happen to them, things that felt good.

These lines set up the backdrop of this book in several ways. We learn our geographical setting, as well as the class background of the protagonist, and his attitude towards others. I think that’s solid. And I like the concept of the Whatever People. Something about this idea reminds me of the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, always so aware of everyone’s class and of what they could afford to not care about.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

killing

Be excited about this one: a modern retelling of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and it is excellent! It begins:

“Hello, there,” she said.

I looked at the pale, freckled hand on the back of the empty bar seat next to me in the business class lounge at Heathrow Airport, then up into the stranger’s face.

“Do I know you?” I asked.

And there we have it. A plane replaces a train; and our protagonists are a man and a woman rather than two men. Let the fun begin.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

A terrifying, enigmatic and ever-accelerating story about the power of imagination.

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Jack Peter Keenan has always been an odd boy. Even before the accident three years ago, he was not exactly normal. Now almost 11 years old, he doesn’t go outside, ever. As Christmas approaches, there are strange happenings afoot: things that go bump in the night, apparitions in the snowy roadway, screams of people who aren’t there. Jack has begun drawing monsters. His parents, Holly and Tim, are increasingly worried.

Holly renews her relationship with the church; when she seeks answers, the local priest and his Japanese housekeeper pelt her with tales of shipwrecks and spirits. Tim resolves to work harder with his son. The parents of Jack’s one friend, Nick, take off for the holiday, leaving him to stay with the Keenans in their remote Maine beachside home, in the snow and bitter cold. As Jack’s drawings multiply and the howls outside grow louder, readers will wonder if he’s withdrawing, abandoning reality (and pulling Nick and the Keenans along with him), or if somehow his interior landscape is populating the outside world.

Multiple mysteries enliven the terror of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, which becomes ever more disturbing as the source of danger comes gradually into focus. In his sensitive, incisive treatment of Jack’s behavior and its effect on his family, Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) explores the challenges of mental disorders, but suspense and a bright thread of terror evoke the very best of the horror genre. Just as a Maine winter chills the bones, this singular little boy provides a satisfyingly frightening story.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 steps outside.
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