book beginnings on Friday: The Magician by E. J. Stauffer

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.


This weekend’s reading is a shortish thriller starring a retired assassin.

Ben Knight could have been any man in his early thirties, of average height and weight and with no outstanding features. If you were to meet him, you would most likely be unable to describe him an hour later. As he walked to the bar, he casually ran over a scenario in his mind that seemed promising at first but was not very practical.

There are a few recognizable patterns here: the nondescript and forgettable man, who then walks into a bar… but there is promise within those standards. Stay tuned.

The Last September by Nina de Gramont

As a literary novel of both suspense and emotion, this flashback-filled murder mystery has broad appeal.

last september

The Last September, by Nina de Gramont, portrays an immediately gripping world of secrets, trauma, and conflicting loyalties. Spanning mental illness, the meaning of family, and the lengths we go to for love, this novel begs to be read in a single sitting.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on August 27, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.


My rating: 8 tiny scribbles.

Last Ragged Breath by Julia Keller

last ragged breathThis is the fourth novel in Julia Keller’s detective series starring Bell Elkins, a lawyer with a high-powered degree who has returned to small-town West Virginia to work as a prosecutor there. I tried to read (or actually, listen to) the first, A Killing in the Hills, and found the characters a bit flat. In a nutshell, Last Ragged Breath was very enjoyable, but did not entirely solve that problem.

The Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 is a true historical event in West Virginia history, in which a coal mining company’s irresponsibility and disregard for human life led to more than 100 deaths. In this novel, a childhood survivor of that tragedy, Royce Dillard, is now a grown man, a recluse living alone in the woods with a number of rescue dogs. A tourism development company looking to build a resort in the nearby hills has been bothering him to sell a small parcel of land; when the chief botherer turns up murdered on Royce’s land, he is arrested for the crime. Although the forensic evidence is overwhelming, something about this case doesn’t sit right with prosecutor Bell Elkins. Meanwhile, she struggles with sideplots: her best friend the sheriff has just retired, and she’s not done being angry and grieved about it; she is learning to work with his replacement; and a potential love interest offers distractions.

Bell Elkins is noted as a well-developed character by many, inspiring complimentary blurbs from the likes of Michael Connelly. Sadly, I continued to feel that a few aspects of her personality felt predictable. The teenaged daughter who bothered me so much in the first novel is now mostly removed, although I recognized the same awkward dialog between the two of them when she reappeared. Other characters (like the new sheriff, and the owner of the resort-building company) also felt just a bit too typed from time to time, and scenes sometimes get a bit overwrought. This is my only complaint with the book, though, and it is a minor one (and perhaps my sense of it was heightened by that earlier experience). Overall, the story is compelling, and carries significant momentum: I was happy to spend a day and a half doing almost nothing other than finishing the book. Its comments on corporate responsibility and the complexities of coal mining’s regional legacy were well done. The people of Acker’s Gap mostly recognize that coal is dirty, and mining is dirty work; but they also need work, and see that there’s nothing to fill the hole it would leave. Nothing is simple.

An intricate plot, neatly paced suspense, and yes, likeable (if not perfectly realized) characters make for not only an enjoyable and entertaining read, but one accompanied by commentary on our real world. I’ve made my peace with the Bell Elkins series. And stay tuned for my upcoming interview with the very gracious Julia Keller.

Rating: 6 kibbles.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

An enchantingly unsettling thriller with mysterious characters and a classically spooky setting.

dark dark wood

Ruth Ware’s chilling, atmospheric thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood is her first novel and the inaugural title published by Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Scout Press.

Nora is a writer of crime novels, a loner who buys her groceries online and appreciates her solitude. But when she gets an invitation to a hen party being thrown for a woman she hasn’t spoken to in 10 years, her carefully structured life is disrupted. Against her instincts, she agrees to attend, and the party’s setting serves as a disturbing beginning: an isolated castle of steel and glass set deep in the English woods, populated for the weekend by nervous guests, each apparently with secrets to keep.

In the novel’s disjointed timeline, Nora later wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of being covered in blood, running through dark woods with a sense of urgency; the police are waiting outside her door. What happened to her? Or… what has she done? As the narrative switches between Nora’s confusion in her hospital bed and the events leading up to her hospitalization, she and the reader together begin to wonder: Can she really not remember, or does she not want to? Both timelines accelerate with building suspense toward the big reveal, and eventually Nora will have to go back and recall events from her past that she’d rather leave forgotten.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is peopled by mysterious characters set to a classically spooky backdrop and culminating in blood, broken glass and memory loss. Readers who appreciate being unnerved will be charmed.

This review originally ran in the August 14, 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!
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Rating: 7 tequila shots.

The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

A disquieting puzzle starring two odd but loving brothers with distinct fixations.

insect farm

Stuart Prebble’s U.S. debut, The Insect Farm, follows the lives of two devoted brothers, Jonathan and Roger. As boys, they were close, but as they enter adulthood they develop separate passions. Jonathan is obsessed with his stunning, brilliant wife, Harriet, and deeply, disturbingly jealous of the attentions she receives from other men. Roger is consumed with his intricate collection of insect tanks and habitats, housed in a garden shed, where he goes to lose himself for hours on end. Roger is mentally handicapped, and his ability in caring for the insect farm is much greater than his abilities in other areas of his life.

When their family circumstances change, Jonathan leaves university to care for Roger, putting Harriet at a physical distance since she stays in school. From this point, a series of misfortunes and accidents raises faint questions about the minds of each brother, as they age together in quiet companionship.

This unsettling story is told in Jonathan’s retrospective voice, as he looks back on the tragedies that have befallen his family. While each brother is a complex and subtly disconcerting character, this dubious point of view obscures them somewhat, and the reader’s suspicions accumulate.

Suspenseful and ominous, The Insect Farm sketches a world of unstable truths, while posing questions about memory, relationships, perception and intuition. Through Jonathan’s shifting narration, Prebble skillfully evokes an increasingly unnerving atmosphere, as it gradually becomes clear how little each brother really understands about the other–and about himself.

This review originally ran in the July 21, 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 cockroaches.

Slow Burn by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Brisk pacing and a complex plot make this mystery novel a juicy, satisfying thriller.

slow burn

Slow Burn follows Fourth Down and Out as the second Andy Hayes mystery by Andrew Welsh-Huggins. Private Investigator Andy is struggling in both his personal and professional lives when the grandmother of a convicted arsonist/murderer contacts him with a request to clear her grandson, who confessed to the crime. The case looks like a loser, which makes it about right for Andy. This fast-paced, complex mystery will satisfy genre fans, while spotlighting its Columbus, Ohio setting.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published in the Summer 2015 issue of ForeWord Reviews.

My rating: 7 book dedications.

The Secret Place by Tana French (audio)

secretI think I will call it a great credit to Tana French that even though this novel took me months to finish, due to my much-reduced audio-listening time, I never lost the thread or lost interest. It can be hard to read a book that slowly, over that much time. But The Secret Place is gripping, compelling, peopled by fine, interesting, and distinctive characters; it lent itself pretty well to this less-than-ideal reading (listening) schedule.

French’s dedicated readers will recognize several characters from earlier novels, although these books do not exactly form a series. The central detective in The Secret Place is Stephen Moran, who has been relegated to the depths of the Cold Cases unit, where he is not particularly happy. Then a gift is dropped in his lap: Holly Mackey, who was but a little girl in Faithful Place, is now 16 years old and boarding at a chi-chi girls’ school called St. Kilda’s. She brings Moran a card stating that the writer knows who killed Chris Harper, found murdered last year on St. Kilda’s grounds.

Moran takes this card to the Murder squad, where he has ambitions, and begins working with Detective Antoinette Conway, a prickly, defensive sort. The two form an unlikely, tentative team, and the rest of the novel covers a single, very long day they spend on campus at St. Kilda’s, solving the case.

Or at least part of it does. The Secret Place is split into two narratives, which alternate chapters: the story of Moran & Conway’s single long day, and the last 18 months or so in the lives of Holly Mackey and her three girlfriends. Holly, Selena, Julia and Becca are very, very close. They all knew Chris Harper, some more closely than they’ve let on to the police; their friendship and their lives are caught up in the case, and Moran knows it. As Moran & Conway work the case, the second narrative brings readers up to date in the girls’ lives.

As an audio production, this is effectively played by two readers, a male reader for Stephen Moran’s story and a female third-person narrator of Holly and her friends’ lives. The latter narrative is ghostly, compelling, and mystical; there are magical elements, although of course this is a realistic story; the magic is simply that of youth.

Moran is a sympathetic character who wants badly to “make it,” to fit in in Murder, to have a partner, to have a friend. He is sensitive and self-conscious, yearning. The girls wield their own self-referential magnetic power, very much evocative of the strange world of teenagerhood. Friendship, its meaning and its powers, are very much the central themes of this story.

In short, Tana French has done it again. Her characters are mesmerizing, both realistic and spell-binding. The plot is twisty: beware thinking you know where she’s headed! I love this stuff. Keep it coming.

Rating: 7 earbuds.

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