Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Edwin Hill, WATCH HER

Edwin Hill’s WATCH ME, a contemporary thriller set in Boston, centers on a for-profit university and its owners and students—and a crime committed years ago that was covered up by layers of lies. It is told from the alternating perspectives of Angela (a detective), Hester (a missing persons specialist), Barret (a transgender student), and Maxine (who helps run the university). Through their different perspectives, Hill illuminates how one small, terrible incident years ago can have effects for a large web of people, and how the characters (and we) all carry our baggage—divided loyalties, unfulfilled longings, childhood guilt, and questions of identity. The ending has a twist I truly did NOT see coming. Yow! 

Those who like contemporary thrillers will find this a quick, engaging read. I'd say this is a good fit for fans of Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lisa Unger, and Hannah Mary McKinnon. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


This is a departure from McLain's previous works of historical fiction (such as THE PARIS WIFE and CIRCLING THE SUN). This is a thriller based upon real events and set in 1993, just before the internet makes finding missing persons a different kind of task. 

The protagonist, Anna Hart, a missing persons detective living in San Francisco, has left her family behind after a tragic accident kills her daughter, and she goes to Mendocino, a former home town, to grieve. There, a constellation of cases of missing girls draws her in, and in working through them, she confronts her childhood traumas from life in foster care. 

For me, what makes this an unusually strong thriller is the level of writing, particularly the internal monologue, which often feels pitch-perfect, precise and elegant, even poetic. Quotes are never as powerful out of context, but here are some samples:

"[I felt]... a sadness that seemed to settle into the space between the trees, between the trunks and branches, between the needles and leaves, between the molecules. It climbed inside my body and curled up tightly under my ribs, like a fist made of silver thread."

"When things got hard and you felt shaky, she liked to say, you could hit your knees wherever you were, and the world would be there to catch you."

"What is all the suffering for if not so we can see how alike we are, and not alone? Where will the mercy come from, if not from us?"

Ambitious in its themes and compassionate and humane in its ethos, I think this book will appeal to fans of Tana French and Louise Penny.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Kaitlyn Greenidge, LIBERTIE


This is a beautifully written historical novel. If you look closely at this picture, you can see the red tabs that I stuck to pages when I found a particularly well-wrought sentence. There were dozens. 

The setting is 1860s Brooklyn. I have to admit, part of the charm of the book was that this was a time and place that was fresh and unknown to me.  

The line that opens the first section is this: "Se pa tout blesi ki geri. Not all wounds heal. 1860." 

The protagonist is Libertie Sampson, a young Black woman and the daughter of a doctor who can pass for white. Her mother intends that Libertie will join her medical practice, that they will be Dr. Sampson and daughter, but Libertie's interests lean elsewhere. The book begins in 1860, and we see through Libertie's eyes (told in first person POV) the world before the Civil War, during it, and afterwards, when Libertie moves to Haiti and experiences life there. 

Despite being set during a war, this is not a book full of Huge Events. Rather, it's a thoughtful, poignant look at a mother and a daughter, striving to find their places in a world where everything is changing. It is also a nuanced meditation on race and our responsibilities toward others. I'm tempted to call it a coming-of-age story, and I would recommend it not only to adults but to YA readers, who I think will identify with Libertie's longings and hopes, her fears of disappointing her mother, and her desperate break with her early life that causes her to feel regret and brings about a growing awareness of herself. 

I'm always entranced by authors who develop their secondary characters well. My favorite SCs in this novel are Experience and Louisa, two Black women singers, who are inspired by the Fisk Jubilee singers, all emancipated slaves, who formed an a cappella group that toured America and Europe to earn money to support Fisk University. The last section of the book, set in Haiti, was hard for me to read, as Libertie suffers emotional abuse at the hands of her husband Emmanuel's family. But her letter to her husband, at the end, is a satisfying triumph. 


Sunday, July 11, 2021




Monday, July 5, 2021



Like his award-winning debut BLACKTOP WASTELAND, Cosby’s new novel is gritty and raw and ambitious in its themes. There are two main characters, both ex-cons—a white father named Buddy Lee and a Black father named Ike—whose sons Derek and Isiah fell in love and were married and raising a daughter when they were brutally murdered. The fathers had rejected their sons’ sexuality and marriage before the young men died; but now, belatedly, the two men resolve to “set it right” by discovering why the young men were murdered and taking their revenge. Although the book contains plenty of curses, and guns and blood appear frequently, the profanity and violence are neither gratuitous nor superfluous. These men live in a brutal world (present-day, in a small town in Virginia), where the power is held by some truly unredeemable men, characterized by ignorance, fear, and rage. As the fathers’ regret for their irreparable mistakes nearly breaks them, Buddy Lee and Ike each find some redemption in the acceptance they find for each other and their differences, which go far beyond skin color into the domain of lived experiences and fundamental assumptions. Ike schools Buddy Lee regularly about the injustice he faces as a Black man, and at times I felt Buddy Lee was a stand-in for the insensitive white reader. But far more often, I felt the authenticity of Ike’s pain—the gross injustices as well as the mundane, grinding ways that Black people are treated with less decency and consideration than white people. 

At times, reading Cosby’s book, I found myself thinking of Brit Bennett’s VANISHING HALF because that book (also very good) grapples with similar questions: Why do we fear difference, and how do we transcend that fear? What does it mean to accept someone who is very different from ourselves, by virtue of their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity? (Like VANISHING HALF, RAZORBLADE TEARS features a transgender young adult.) Cosby’s novel adds another question, a poignant one: What can we do when we come to acceptance too late, and how can we make amends?

As a novelist, I keep my eye out for moments when the language conveys profound feeling, a raw experience that pulls the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters. Cosby is good at this; the moments come frequently. I also scribble in the margin at places where the language sings. In his writing, Cosby slips smoothly from forthright description into language that feels lyrical and even poetic: “The air had a stale, spoiled scent. A thin layer of dust covered most of the exposed surfaces. Death had laid his cold hand on this place and stilled its heart.” He turns nouns into verbs, and vice versa, making the language fresh: “His truck shuddered as the engine dieseled for a few seconds.” And he paces the book well, with the conflict becoming more and more desperate—until the final, terrifying showdown.

A powerful, well-written page-turner with compelling and troubled protagonists, this book will please fans of Lou Berney and Tana French.


This true-crime art heist tale, published in 2004, has as many unlikely twists, betrayals, and double agents as a compelling mystery novel.

In 1974, a British heiress sympathetic to the IRA, together with three men, stole 19 paintings, including Vermeer's LADY WRITING A LETTER WITH HER MAID, from Russborough, a castle and the dwelling place of the English aristocrats Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in Ireland. The paintings were recovered; but in 1986, the Vermeer and other paintings were stolen again by a bold Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Set against Irish tensions of the late 1900s that reflected the chasms between the classes and between Ireland and England, this story illuminates the darker side of art--including the connections to drug and mob money and to violence.

My fascination with the stories and historical tidbits that surround high-end art began when I worked at Christie's Auction House in NYC in the 1990s. Much of what I learned there about the art world became good fodder for the novel that would eventually become A TRACE OF DECEIT. I first read this book (THE IRISH GAME) as I was drafting TRACE, years ago, because it tells more than the story of the solved art heists. It also tells the story of how a man restoring the painting carefully removed the top layer of paint (which was added after Vermeer died) to reveal a red wax seal on the letter, which adds to the emotional depth of the painting; and how a conservator discovered the technique Vermeer used to achieve perspective in his painting. Amazing.

I reread this book again recently because as I develop my new protagonist, Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and raised in an Irish section of Whitechapel, I'm obsessing about Ireland--its history, the prejudices against the Irish in England in the 1800s, and the complex web of police and criminals that reached from one island to the other across the Irish Sea.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in art, Ireland, and true crime.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Susan Elia Macneal, THE HOLLYWOOD SPY

An enjoyable tenth installment in the beloved MAGGIE HOPE series! This might be one of my favorites, partly because it illuminates part of WWII history that I knew very little about.

The first line of the Prologue is “It was 1943, and America was at war.” Readers might think they know what this sentence means; America had been at war since Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. But before long, we realize a second meaning: America is at war with itself. As Maggie Hope solves the mystery of Gloria’s death in Hollywood, she discovers the racial inequities and anti-Semitism that shaped Los Angeles and America more broadly. The posters plastered along the Los Angeles streets may claim we’re all standing “shoulder to shoulder,” but as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there are rifts and divisions among the American police and civilians alike.

I write my novels from a single, first-person perspective, so the reader knows what the detective knows. MacNeal writes in third person and astutely employs this to her advantage here: we follow Maggie and her friend John Sterling (readers of previous books will remember this attractive hero) searching for the truth; we also see a group of KKK/Nazi sympathizers plotting acts of destruction, putting democracy and the American way of life at stake. As another author friend said recently, a villain is never a villain in his own head. In MacNeal's hands, these conspirators are not stupid straw men (as a less accomplished author might be tempted to portray them). We gain insight into the logic and justifications they use, and this amplifies and brings home the danger they present.

Another important theme that runs through the book is the use to which the media is put. Everywhere there are slogans, posters, newspapers, books, and movies that are shaping the image of the war for American consumption. John Sterling is teaching pilots, but he is also helping to write propaganda for Disney, as his real-life counterpart and RAF pilot Roald Dahl did. It becomes clear that Britain and America are fighting with each other for control of that propaganda—which is yet another example of not standing “shoulder to shoulder” despite proclaimed (and romanticized) intentions. I also loved the opening line of chapter 1: “I have a feeling … we’re not in London anymore.” The use of *The Wizard of Oz* throughout as a “meta-text” for this novel is both a wink to the reader and a suggestion that there are two worlds in America—one in black and white, and the other a shadow, mythical world whose most noticeable characteristic is its color (the Yellow brick road; the Emerald City) and which points to a world that may look first at the color of a person’s skin.

As usual, MacNeal’s extensive research is evident without being on ostentatious display, with historically accurate details and metaphors drawn from the time. Maggie Hope fans will find this novel suspenseful and surprising, illuminating a lesser-known aspect of WWII. To my mind, it’s her intriguing adventure yet.