The Good Widow by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke

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The Good Widow by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke is, in this copycat female heroine deluge of badly or average written novels; a breath of something different. There is in this novel, something that is lacking in so many others and goes so horribly underappreciated. An originality in storytelling and even an embracing of its own flaws. But more than all that. there is story; dammit, story.

“…Our marriage was far from perfect, but did I think he was cheating on me? Never. Not even in hindsight. Maybe that made me naive or stupid or a little of both, but I was happy. I wasn’t one of those wives with trust issues. I’d heard it all from friends whose husbands traveled-that they required their spouses to check in several times a day, to supply them with a full itinerary, to regale them with details about their trips when they returned back home. I didn’t want to be like that…”

Jacqueline, “Jacks”, Morales was an elementary school teacher whose marriage, though not perfect, was quite fulfilling until the day when two policeman showed up at her door. Her husband, James, who she believed was on a business trip to Kansas, has suffered a fatal car accident in Hawaii. Only he wasn’t alone.

Burying her husband is hard, but it is made worse by the knowledge that his final moments were spent with another woman. Now as she wrestles with both the betrayal and grief, Jacks is visited by a stranger. A man named Nick who may be the only person who truly understands how she feels. Nick, whose fiance disappeared only to wind up dead, in Hawaii. So Nick has a proposition. A way for both he and Jacks to find closure.

“…I explained to Beth what Nick said when he came to see me. That he hadn’t been able to sleep since he found out his fiancee died, because he needed answers. He needed to understand more. About Dylan. About James. About the bond they had formed together, seemingly right under our noses. He wanted to travel to Hawaii to retrace their steps. It might sound crazy, but would I go with him?
‘He asked you to do what?’ Beth interrupts me.
‘To go to Maui with him.’
‘A perfect stranger.’
‘Yes.’ But what I don’t say is that we are connected by this event in a way that no longer makes us people who don’t know each other…”

Together, Jacks and Nick travel to trace the steps of the lovers who betrayed them. But what they find is even darker and far more dangerous than the pain they are already going through. Can their newfound love survive the truth of the past that haunts them?

Okay, I started this with a pretty positive review but now is where I pull back. This could have been a really good tense thriller if the authors had invested a little more time in the characters and made them as compelling as the story could have been. But what we have is a story, a very good story, but still one where I was able to piece together what would happen in the first third of the book.

Let’s begin with Jacks. Despite the title, she is not a good widow. Hell she wasn’t even a good wife. She marries James in a whirlwind romance and forgets to mention that she may be infertile. A minor kind of thing in this day and age, seriously, why would any man ever expect to have children with his wife? But her lies and deception are really James’ fault. An unfair expectation of his predisposed by his Latin American family. But being barren aside, lets screw he boyfriend of the lover of your husband because, because you know, we all need closure.

Then there is Beth. The caricature of the best friend/sister who will travel across the world to take care of you. But then you don’t. Not really. Not when Jacks is in danger or just making bad decisions. You’re pretty much just loud and obnoxious. A busy body who serves no purpose.

But now to the real issue with this book.

I seriously figured out the plot in the first 100 pages and finished the book hoping that there was more to it than that.

The Good Widow is a good story, with an obvious plot and weak characters who cannot raise it above it’s failings.

Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

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Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King is a novella much in the line of his full length novel, Needful Things, but with none of the true skin crawling horror . It is however, one of those sweet little gems of a story that will resound with you much after you put it away that is a trademark of King’s earlier works.

Twelve year old Gwendy Peterson lives a quiet but strangled life in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. Castle Rock is a small town that has seen a great deal of strange going ons over the years but for now has fallen into a lull of sorts. That kind of lull that cries out to be broken. Gwendy lives with her family whose existence has been one of hopeless survival. Love has become despair and the hope of a better future seems impossible. Gwendy, herself, has spent the previous year being ridiculed and bullied for her weight. But she has finally decided that she has had enough and everyday during the summer of 1974, she takes the suicide stairs up to Castle View, stairs that are bolted into the cliffside. The trek has often been uneventful but one day there is someone waiting for her at the top of the cliff. Someone with a box in his hands.

“…Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me…”

On a bench at the top of Castle View sits a man dressed in black with a white shirt and a small black hat. He gives Gwendy a box with buttons, each button does something different. What Gwendy comes to find out is that this box can give her all her dreams. A future for her and her family. But the buttons can do other things as well. They can harm as well as do good. They can cause natural and man made disasters. The buttons can control everything. The box is Gwendy’s for now, but with all it can give her, can she handle the responsibility of what it can do?

This is a very well conceived novella and King has shades of his old storytelling abilities coming through here. Like many of his novels, Gwendy’s Button Box borders on the realm of Horror but falls more distinctly in the genre of fantasy. This novella follows Gwendy as she grows for a pre-teen girl into a young college age student and the story itself seems that it could have been much bigger than what is laid down in black and white. Perhaps King has finally decided to edit his newer work with a finer eye toward the story, as was so true in his early works.

I found the characters and the story far more satisfying in this novella than I have in much of what is King’s newer work. I am actually wondering what wasn’t told, what parts of this tale are missing in this format. I am hungry for more of this story, something a newer King novel hasn’t done for me in a long time.

Gwendy’s Button Box is Stephen King doing what he does best.

He can tell a damn fine story.

Into The Water by Paula

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Into The Water by Paula Hawkins, is the newest offering by the author of The Girl On The Train and is sure to divide the readers as to whether this is a step forward in showing off what is obviously some of the better writing skills to be found. Intricately plotted and slower of pace, this novel may not find a rabid following among readers who like their mysteries action filled and fast paced. But for those able to invest a little more of their own attention to a well written tale, Into The Water is detailed and beautifully written.

“…Because that is where it begins; with the swimming of witches-the ordeal by water. There, at my pool, that peaceful beauty spot not a mile from where I sit right now, was where they brought them and bound them and threw them into the river, to sink or to swim.
Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters…”

The corpse of a single mother is found dead at the bottom of the river that runs through the quiet English town of Bedford. At the spot where the river turns is a pool, and throughout time it has claimed many victims. Strangely enough, the majority being women. Earlier the past year, a young girl had also drowned in the Bedford Pool. The latest death, Nel was compiling a history of these deaths, and now she has become the latest one.

Jules Abbott is Nel’s younger sister and she has sworn never to return to Bedford. But now with Nel dead and your fifteen year old daughter left without a mother, Jules has to come back to the town she grew up in. To a past she has spent her whole life running away from.

“…Opposite the entrance, images of the Drowning Pool. Over and over and over, from every conceivable angle, every vantage point: pale and icy in the winter, the cliff black and stark, or sparkling in the summer, an oasis lush and green, or dull flinty gray with storm clouds overhead, over and over and over. The images blurred into one, a dizzying assault on the eye. I felt as though I were there, in that place, as though I were standing at the top of the cliff, looking down into the water, feeling that terrible thrill, the temptation of oblivion…”

Now Jules must struggle to find the truth about the town and the Drowning Pool and somehow come to grips with the creeping realization that her sister Nel may not have thrown herself into the pool. That she may have been pushed.

Paula Hawkins has made a name for herself with the ability of hiding the truth of her stories just beneath the surface of what the reader can see is going on. Truths and half truths mingle and clash until the plot, deftly stirred, begins to surface. This is what good writing is. Too often we get the cheap thrill out of the deluge of mystery novels in the marketplace. The same old story retold with a different heroine or with a little more spice added to the mix. But in reality, it really is the same old tale.

Hawkins dares to be different. She dares to wield her craft and tell a tale that is not at all like every other book out there. For that she should be applauded. And held accountable.

Into The Water suffers from the very same handicap that The Girl On The Train does. Its strength is that it is wonderfully plotted but the characters are weak. It is difficult to identify with them and then to want to care about them. It isn’t that they are dis-likable, it is more that their actions and their musings will leave the reader with the irresistible urge to slap the crap out of them.

Still this is one of the more interesting backdrops to a novel that I have come across in some time and the dysfunctional relationship between Nel and Jules, one does begin to wonder is Jules will follow through with her hunt for the truth. Thankfully Hawkins has created a strong supporting cast that as a team of characters make up for the lack of interest there will be in Jules alone. In fact it is Nel herself that drives much of this tale.

Into The Water is a very good book and fans of The Girl On The Train will find it a welcome addition to the Hawkins library. But for those who need more speed with their novels they will have the same issues that they had with The Girl On The Train.

Overall a very good book!

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

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Little Heaven by Nick Cutter is what a horror novel once was and should always be. It is what was written before the teenage romance readers and writers got a hold of the genre and weakened it. There is darkness, there is horror and there is a hopelessness that infects all the characters. They are damned and redeemed and in their redemption must pay the price for their sins.. There are no heroes here. There are only cast of characters whose sins are faced off against a greater evil. An evil they could not have every been prepared for. This has been called old school horror but that is wrong, unless it can be considered old school just because there is no safe place to shield you in this book.

“…You really think we’ll have to blast our way out of here?’ said Ellen. ‘Have things gotten that nuts?’
Things can get nuts pretty fast, Micah thought. He knew it. He’d seen it.
Minerva said, ‘There’s something else in these woods.’
Everyone looked at her. A flush crept up her throat.
‘Just something hostile,’ she went on, undeterred. ‘I felt it the other night, searching for the boy. A million eyes scuttling over my skin. I don’t care if that sounds stupid. Maybe I’m going a little nuts myself.’ She stared at them, her jaw fixed tight. ‘This fucking place.’
Nobody disputed her sense of things…”

Three mercenaries, one time enemies, but now working together take a simple job. Go with a woman to check on her nephew, who was taken by his father to a remote, religious settlement in New Mexico known as Little Heaven. Micah Shughrue, Minerva Atwater, and Ebenezer Elkins escort Ellen Bellhaven into New Mexico to see how her nephew is doing. But soon after they arrive they begin to realize that nothing is what it seems in this secluded community. The settlers are paranoid of outsiders and worse, their children are beginning to go missing. The people of Little Heaven know that there is something old and dark in the woods surrounding their settlement. There is something that is beginning to call out to them from the woods, something that is encroaching on their world.

“…The thing was more interested in Otis. He’d stopped screaming, now face to face with it. Otis’ lips trembled as he called out, oh so weakly, for his God.
The the thing attacked. Otis might as well have walked into a garbage disposal. His face was shredded, legs jittering crazily as he was torn to bits. Blood burst forth and sheeted down, a veritable waterfall of the red stuff splattering Micah’s face…”

I have read Nick Cutter before. I was not overly impressed as the rest of the world seemed to be with The Troop but I absolutely loved The Deep. Yes there were a thousand things wrong with it but the tense atmosphere of the novel was the true promise of what was to come.

In Little Heaven, Cutter’s scope and storytelling take major leaps forward. This is epic horror on the scale of some of King’s best tales. As good as them, probably not but very much as ambitious. Little Heaven is a novel of evil on the human scale and then evil on a scale that goes beyond the reality of our world.

Cutter’s ambition and reach would scare some young writers but in Little Heaven he delivers the goods.

This is horror. This is dark. This is redemption. This is hope.

This is on par with Joe Hill.

This is just that damn good.

The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey

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The Wrong Dead Guy is book #2 in the Coop Heist series and a terrific sequel to the Everything Box. Richard Kadrey whose Sandman Slim series has garnered the author very well deserved praise, takes a far more irreverent tone with this new series. But beware, this is dark humor at its best,

Coop is a master thief and one that specializes in stealing supernatural artifacts. After being caught and then released to basically save the world, Coop now works for the Department of Peculiar Science. Now Coop breaks into places for the government. For which he is paid a meager wage and threatened with imprisonment on a daily basis. Coop’s boss, Woolrich, sends Coop to steal a sarcophagus containing an ancient Egyptian wizard known as Harkhuf from a museum. It goes smoothly and that should have been the first clue that bad things were coming.

Because when they open it up they didn’t find the dead mummy they were expecting to. What they found is a live mummy and he is pissed. Harkhuf escapes and it falls on Coop to find him and bring him back. Only Harkhuf is a wizard and Coop is still only a thief. What Harkhuf is after is a manuscript that will bring his old lover back to life and together they plan to destroy the world. Now Coop has to find a way to stop them before he is blamed for everything and sent back to jail. If Coop can save the world again, this time, he is definitely going to ask for a raise!

Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series had the audacity to humanize demons and angels and God and the Devil. In his new Coop series, Kadrey shows us a lighter side to the supernatural as his hero is as lovable a loser as you can find. Coop can’t help but stumble over himself and though he usually is trying to do the right thing, it tends to always go wrong. He is also the ultimate expendable character. Often sent into situations that have no hope, Coop manages to find a way or just luck into them.

With a cast of characters that are as offbeat as they are outrageous, The Wrong Dead Guy is just a whole lot of fun.

A terrific read.

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

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An Obvious Fact is book #12 in the popular Walt Longmire series. Fans of the Netflix series will find the books that inspired the show to be quit different. No character more so, than Henry Standing Bear. In An Obvious Fact Henry steps forward as his past and present are strongly intertwined in a mystery of murder, guns and drugs and lost lovers. A mystery Sheriff Walt Longmire must solve even though it will open of the past of his oldest and best friend.

Sheriff Longmire is called to consult on a death in Hulett, Wyoming during the week of the biggest motorcycle rally in the world. In the shadow of the Devils Tower, Hulett is usually a very quiet little town. But during the week of the bike rally, it becomes a host to sex and violence and roaring engines. Longmire’s longtime friend Henry Standing Bear joins Walt on the trip. Standing Bear is determined to win back a trophy he once had from the group of riders.

Walt is asked to look into the accident of a young rider, who seemingly lost control of his vehicle on the remote roads. Longmire quickly has suspicions about the crash. He doubts that it was an accident and the entire mystery gets very complicated when the rider is found to be part of a biker gang. One that is being monitored by the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms. Not only that but the biker is the son of the woman Henry Standing Bear once had a love affair with. The woman he had named his ’59 Thunderbird after and who is the namesake of Walt’s granddaughter. The mysterious and seductive Lola.

In a time and place where no one is going to talk to anyone wearing a badge, Sheriff Longmire must wade through the distrust and shadows to come to the truth. As Sherlock Holmes is apt to say, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

Fans of the Netflix series or not, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series should be required reading in American modern western literature. The insights into the plight of the tribes of the native american Indian in our modern era and the encroachment on the native lands by not only developers but the rich who want to play cowboy or rancher, would be eye opening that those who live on the east coast and the spoiled west.

Johnson has a firm handle on his main character and over the course of twelve novels we have seen Walt grow into the Sheriff we all have come to know and admire. When I read a Longmire novel I am reminded of the terminology of the Cowboy Poet. There is a great beauty to the land and the life he has chosen to lead. He is that hero who needs to set the world right. To battle against the injustice in our world and defend those who cannot defend themselves. But above all is his love of the law. The truth is his basic nature and from these tenants he shall not and cannot stray.

The supporting characters very often are as strong as Longmire is. Henry Standing Bear and Undersheriff Vic Moretti. Together they create the team that drives the Longmire series.

An Obvious Fact is a fine addition to this series as the initial mystery is one that at times gets lost in the greater picture of what is going on. But we return to the initial mystery and the obvious fact of what really happened on the dark road the night the young man crashed. An Obvious Fact we simply don’t want to accept.

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

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The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith is the kind of throwback war time romance thriller that can get lost in the abundance of cheap and tawdry works that pass for romance in the current marketplace. With unforgettable characters and impossible odds. The Girl From Venice is a book about war and betrayal. About heroism and regret and the one chance at redemption.

It is occupied Venice and the small port town of La Serenissima in 1945. The war is coming to a dismal and brutal end and the German army is retreating. Mussolini is still going about boasting and roaring about victory but the allied forces are on his doorstep. Italy, already in German hands, is about to fall to the allies. The people of La Serenissima find themselves caught between the Fascists, the Germans, the Partisans and the oncoming American army. Their only hope is to survive these final moments of the end of the war. But the German army has other ideas and is on a last ditch effort to erase what they have done. They are rounding up and killing the remaining Jews in Venice and for his part, Mussolini is hoarding all the gold he can to escape. Against this backdrop, the fisherman Cenzo goes about his day, gathering his catch. Until the night he finds a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and a German gunboat coming up fast. What Cenzo does next will change his life forever, and that of the young Jewish girl he pulls from the water.

“…Ah, this is, I take it, your ‘nephew’. My God. And unless I have completely lost my eyesight and my wits, ‘he’ is a ‘she.”
‘So now you know,’ Cenzo said.
‘This is, you understand, a deception that won’t last a minute in daylight.’
‘We’ve done pretty well so far.’
‘Well, dear boy, the Germans smell something. They found the body of an SS officer down a well. Do you know anything about that ?’
‘No,’ Cenzo said.
‘It was self-defense,’ said Guilia.
Nido rubbed his face. ‘It just gets worse. Cenzo, how could you get into so much trouble in the middle of a fucking lagoon?…”

Cenzo finds himself embroiled in a end of the war mission to protect the young girl Giulia. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia may hold the secret to who the betrayer among her people was. Cenzo finds himself in a place where there is no one to trust and with an overwhelming need to save this young girl. This will lead him into a world of broken promises, black market gold and forgeries and the secrets hidden in the Venice Lagoon. But Cenzo Vianello has secrets of his own.

“…Actually, there were three Vianello brothers,’ said Cenzo. ‘You can see us on the sail of our boat, putti da mare. Giorgio was the oldest, I was in the middle, and the youngest was Hugo. We were attacked by an Allied fighter plane. I did a painting of it. I am on deck, bleeding and praying to the Virgin, and Giorgio is in the water trying to save Hugo. The problem is I never prayed to the Virgin and Hugo and Giorgio were reversed. It wasn’t Giorgio trying to save Hugo, it was Hugo trying to drown Giorgio and himself. You have to ask yourself: Why would Hugo do that…”

Now Cenzo must turn to the brother he hates and the Nazis he cannot trust to save a girl he does not truly know.

Yes I know, another book with the word Girl in the title. Aren’t we all just sitting back and waiting on the blockbuster outdoor thriller titled, The Girl who took a shit in the Woods? But The Girl from Venice is nothing like those books. It is a novel of war and family and hope. And the damage all three can wreak. In fact the girl, Guilia, literally disappears for a sizable portion of the novel. So no, the book is not really about the girl from Venice. It is about the man from La Serenissima and the path he takes to rescue the girl. And in doing so, may finally rescue himself.

I have seen character growth over the course of a series, but rarely have I seen such growth in a character over the course of a single book. But the kicker to that is, that there was truly no growth at all. It was always there. As a reader we prejudge characters by their profession, their race and their initial words and actions. Our prejudices set the stage for the twists and turns that the novel will eventually take. It is slight of hand, the writer employs. A cheap magician’s trick but we often play along.

Martin Cruz Smith does none of this. You are told from the outset who and what Cenzo is. But his slow movement and quiet but firm voice leads you to think he is nothing but an uneducated fisherman. An assumption made by the German gunship crew and as a reader you buy into it. Even Guilia, when she first meets him, sees him this way. But as the tale moves along you see more and more of the character and there is an integrity about him. A powerful sense of loss that has somehow become his strength. From the deaths of his brother and his wife and the betrayal that has marked him. From his decision to not murder an entire village and retire from the war. He is marked as a fool and a coward. But nothing could be further from the truth.

I had an overwhelming sense of Casablanca as I read this novel. Cruz has created a truly remarkable novel of love and fortitude and of hope in the face of despair.

And hope is a good thing.