The Ex by Alafair Burke

I regularly receive emails from Goodreads about upcoming and new releases. I don’t know that I otherwise would have come across Alafair Burke’s The Ex, but I am ever so glad that I did. Many of the crime thrillers I’ve come across lately have been written from the perspective of a detective, so it was an interesting change of pace to read from the point of view of the defense attorney. I really enjoyed Mrs. Burke’s writing and character development. I was especially glad that just because the main character was a lawyer, I didn’t feel bogged down with a mess of legal jargon. Alafair Burke told a fast paced and intriguing story without resorting to boring interludes and constantly keeping me on my toes from one chapter to the next. This is my first novel to have ready by her and I loved The Ex. I look forward to reading more by Alafair Burke!

 

*Spoiler Alert 

 

The story is told in first person by Olivia Randall, criminal defense attorney at Ellison & Randall. I immediately loved her character. She’s charming, but down to earth; intelligent, but not boastful; interpersonal, but not flawless. One thing I dislike is when writers oversell the main character—making them appear capable of achieving the impossible and miraculously (if not luckily) always finding their way out of a jam. Olivia has the right balance of personality traits to be relatable and realistic.

 

Two decades after breaking her ex fiancé’s heart in one of the most cruel ways possible, Olivia Randall finds herself on the phone with his sixteen year old daughter, Buckley Harris. Buckley (an odd name that I wish Mrs. Burke would’ve elaborated on the origin of the choice) pleads with Olivia to take her father’s case because Olivia owes him. That’s kind of where this kicks off. Olivia can’t override her guilt and seizes the opportunity to at least make amends by going to Jack Harris’ rescue. However, the case turns out to be a little more complicated than she had anticipated. Turns out, he’s under arrest in a triple homicide. Yikes!

 

The story moves pretty quickly, but thoroughly, through the details of the crime without instantly answering the one question we all want the answer to: Did he actually commit the crime? Of course, Olivia yo-yos back and forth on whether or to believe he’s guilty and her thoughts had me bouncing back and forth unsure of whether or not to believe Jack’s plea of innocence, either.

 

On one hand, I don’t want to believe he’s done it because he’s lost his wife a few years prior and is consistently described as level-headed, peaceful, and reserved. Then, there’s the flashes of anger, the lying, and finding out later that he cheated on his late wife Molly (as a teacher with a student—so cliché!).

 

So basically the story is less of a “whodunnit” and more of a is “he or isn’t he guilty,” not unlike Gone Girl. I liked this a lot because, for me, it was a fresh take on a crime thriller. Mysterious whodunnits can be a bit redundant, so I liked the change of pace this story provided.

 

The best part of Alafair Burke’s The Ex was the flow of the story. Often times, I run into confusion and lulls, but Mrs. Burke has proven herself to be an exceptional storyteller. I didn’t even realize how quickly I had gone through the book until it was over—I didn’t want to stop reading it!

 

I can’t say wholeheartedly that this was 5 stars for me, only because the plot wasn’t too terribly original and the twist wasn’t very difficult to guess. But it was definitely a solid 4. The Ex is well written, fast-paced, and absorbing with fantastic character development. I can’t wait to dive into more of Alafair Burke’s work!

 

 

© Chelsie Cummings 2016

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

WOW. I have yet to discover the word to accurately describe how much I LOVE this novel. Aside from Stephen King’s It, Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is by far my favorite novel. It really doesn’t get much better than this. This is over 600 pages of  pure, fantastical, imaginative fiction unlike anything I’ve read before. If it came down to one specific thing I enjoyed the most, it would be HOW the story was told. I’m rarely so moved by a novel as to read it twice, but with this one, I’d read it a third time. NOS4A2 is well on the way to being a classic. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

 

*SPOILER ALERT: I'm about to highlight all my favorite things about this book that may include revealing a few plot twists! 

 

Typically I talk about the “good guy” first in my reviews, but I liked the antagonist so much, I’m gonna start with him: Charles Talent Manx III. Immediately into the story, Joe Hill makes it known that Charles Manx is the “bad guy.” He’s creepy, maniacal, and yet charming and I just couldn’t get enough of him. When we first meet him, he’s comatose and in prison serving life. Until he wakes up scaring the crap out of a nurse, babbling on about Christmasland. I don’t know about you, but Christmasland sounds like my kind of place. Well, if you exclude the vampire children, scissors-for-the-drifter, and mummified adult heads hanging from the Christmas tree. But all of that comes later.

 

Christmasland is Manx’s inscape. I absolutely love this whole idea of inscapes—which is a good thing since it just so happens to be a main theme of the novel. Mr. Hill describes inscapes (through Maggie Leigh) as “a world of thought.” Following that logic, Christmasland is all in Manx’s head. Here’s where it gets trippy: Charles Manx, with the aid of Bing Partridge, kidnaps children and drags them into his inscape. So the obvious questions are how and why.

 

Here’s the how: a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. The old-fashioned car is kind of like a key between reality and his inscape. Now I’m not going to attempt to explain this because I don’t feel I could explain it properly and give this brilliant idea the justice it so deserves. The why is it bit easier to clarify. He’s basically like a vampire: feeding off the children’s negativity to keep him young and they live forever, at the age they were kidnapped, in Christmasland. So we don’t really know how old Mr. Manx is, but at one point he declares to be over a hundred. Creepy old guy? Check. Feeding off the young? Check. Charming and witty façade? Check. Charles Talent Manx III just might be a vampire—hence the title (which is also the Wraith’s license plate) NOS4A2.

 

For every bad guy, there’s a hero. In NOS4A2, Victoria “the Brat” McQueen is more or less an “anti-hero.” First let me say that by anti-hero I mean she’s an absolute wreck but is still the one to save the day—so she’s the hero, but doesn’t really portray the typical qualities of a hero.  Victoria has a kind of inscape of her own: the Shortaway Bridge. Her “key” to the Shortaway Bridge when we first meet her is her Raleigh bicycle. The difference between Vic’s inscape and Manx’s inscape is that she uses the Shortaway Bridge to find things that have been lost.

 

During a series of unfortunate events (and I don’t mean Lemony Snicket’s series), Victoria learns more about inscapes from Maggie Leigh (who’s Scrabble tiles assist her in a psychic manner), loses her Raleigh bicycle, ends up a mother and then children’s author, becomes a drunk, ends up in a psych ward followed by rehab, then finally gets her life back together by the time she’s in her thirties. Amongst all of the chaos, she accidentally finds Charles Manx on the other end of her Shortaway Bridge and inadvertently gets him sent to prison after burning down what came to be known as his “Sleigh House.” This is also how she meets Louis Carmody, her son Bruce Wayne Carmody’s father and on again, off again lover over the years.

 

The whole story is building up to the eventual trip to Christmasland. In place of her Raleigh, Vic McQueen stumbles upon the Triumph motorcycle. Her and her now twelve-year-old son fix up the bike and “the Brat” finds her Shortaway Bridge once again. It’s one of those just-in-time elements because shortly after, Charles Manx and Bing Partridge kidnap her son! I have to say, the climax was epic. The last few chapters cover the journey on which Manx takes Wayne to get to Christmasland, while Vic is running from the police trying to chase them down, and Lou is suffering from severe health problems that the stress could cause to be fatal. Then the much-anticipated venture into Christmasland finally arrives. This part I will not describe, because it deserves far more than a summarization in a book review. You will just have to pick up a copy and read Mr. Hill’s masterful, descriptive writing as he takes you on an adventure in Christmasland.

 

My favorite thing about reading Joe Hill’s work is the level of detail he provides. It also makes for a long book review when I feel the need to give at least a half-hearted attempt at a back story! This book is only 600+ pages long, but it feels twice as long (in a good way) because of the depth and level of commitment Mr. Hill displays in the characters and details. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Vic McQueen and Charles Manx and reading about how “the Brat” grows up, stumbles and falls, and picks herself back up to come out on top. Though I described Victoria McQueen as the “anti-hero,” I really feel like she is one of the most relatable, if not fallible, characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. Overall, NOS4A2 is an instant classic in my opinion. There’s so much to love about this novel: the creativity, the imagination, the attention to detail, the way the story ebbs and flows. If you’ve yet to read this, or anything by Mr. Joe Hill, I’m not going to just recommend you read NOS4A2, I’m going to ask you that you do. I don’t feel that anyone should go through the literary life and miss out on this novel. So, please, dear reader friends, find your copy of NOS4A2 and join me in celebrating Joe Hill’s masterpiece!

 

© Chelsie Cummings 2016

 

 

 

 

The Night Stalker by Robert Bryndza

I love crime thrillers. In fact, aside from the occasional horror or supernatural story, I only read crime thrillers (right now—it’s probably a phase). Because of this, it takes either a very well written book or unique plot to blow me away. Robert Bryndza achieved both with The Night Stalker. As mentioned before, characters are the most important part of a story for me, and I loved each and every one—even the bad guy! I also currently have a “thing” for UK authors, and after reading the first in this Detective Chief  Inspector Erika Foster series (The Girl in the Ice), Robert Bryndza had me hooked. I look forward to reading more of Erika Foster!

*SPOILER ALERT 

 

I love when an author brings to life a lovable and relatable character that keeps me wanting to read a series. Although this is only the second in the DCI Erika Foster series, I’m already eager to read more about her career and cases, and escapades in her personal life. Robert Bryndza has successfully created a character that I can care about, that I can open the book (or turn on my iPad) and openly welcome into my home.

DCI Foster has lost her husband (in the line of duty and blames herself) and in The Night Stalker, we get to see how, after two years, she’s growing stronger in dealing with her grief and guilt. I couldn’t help but cheer her on through her hard time. She has her team, DI Moss and DI Peterson being the most notable, and her closest friend forensic pathologist Isaac Strong. So her whole life is basically the job.

Now for the good stuff. There’s a shadow creeping through the night picking off victims one by one. The first murder, of Gregory Munro, is assumed to have been the result of an unfortunate “gay bashing.” However, DCI Foster is unconvinced  from the get go. Her suspicions are confirmed after the second murder of celebrity Jack Hart. A pattern has begun to take shape and an unwitting paparazzi’s photograph has captured the shadow underneath Jack Hart’s bed!

Due to a few pieces of evidence, DCI Foster concludes that the night stalker is a female, going against the original profile of the suspect. However, when Isaac Strong’s boyfriend, Stephen Linely, is found dead (under similar but not exact circumstances as the first two) he is arrested and charged for all three murders.

The next sequence of events I loved and hated at the same time. Due to jurisdictional issues, Erika Foster is thrown off the case; due to personal issues, she’s forced to use her saved up vacation time. What I hated was that her foe, DCI Sparks, became the SIO (senior investigating officer) of the case. What I loved was that she didn’t allow his accusations against Isaac Strong to keep her from continuing to investigate the murders.

In short, after reviewing the evidence from the case, Erika is led to Keith Hardy’s door: a handicapped dwarf that has been in online contact with the night stalker (online name Night Owl) for several years! Confirming, not only is the killer a woman, but that they have the wrong man in custody. Foster shares this newly found information with her boss and the investigative team sets up a failed meet between Duke (Hardy’s online name) and Night Owl.

I won’t spoil the climax, but let’s just say it doesn’t end well for Keith Hardy, but Erika Foster finally gets her man, or rather woman. Now here’s where my loyalty for DCI Foster’s character led me to frustration: not only is the credit for closing the case given to DCI Sparks (who practically didn’t do a thing), but he’s also given the promotion to Superintendent that Erika had been striving for! Ouch. So, we’re left with DCI Erika Foster’s career hanging in limbo as she tries to decide what she wants to do next.

All in all, The Night Stalker was a 5 out of 5 for me. I loved the idea of a female serial killer and vigilante detective being at odds with each other. The suspense, mystery, and characters were unerring. I cannot wait to see where Robert Bryndza leads DCI Erika Foster next!

 

 

© Chelsie Cummings 2016

 

 

 

End of Watch by Stephen King

There are multiple “Kings” of music, but there is only one King of writing. Mr. Stephen King takes what is ordinary and makes it extraordinary. End of Watch takes investigative work to the next level—supernatural. And it works! I was so in love with this book, series, and the characters that I was sad when it came to a close; but the ride was worth it.  If you haven’t read Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch, you NEED to get your copies and catch up on what you’ve been missing!

 

SPOILER ALERT: 

 

Firstly, the title itself, End of Watch, is its own kind of foreshadowing. The term “end of watch” is explained by Stephen King as the retirement (or near retirement) of a long-time police officer. Secondly, I love the underlying theme of the novel: suicide. It’s an epidemic in young people that needs to be discussed out in the open. I appreciate that Stephen King reaches out to readers (of all ages) with this motif and in his author’s note highlights the suicide hotline phone number.

What I love most about this series is how Stephen King began each book with a variant perspective of the massacre at City Center. In End of Watch, the point of view is that of the two paramedics that retrieve Martine Stover from the scene and get her to the hospital in time for her life to be saved (although she’s eventually diagnosed a quadriplegic). From there, he leads the story into her and her mother’s, with whom she lives, supposed double suicide. Thus, the investigation begins.

So throughout the book, the time frame alternates between past (of Brady Hartsfield) and present (of the presumed suicides) and finally intertwine in the present in the end. This is how I was kept on my toes.

The deaths of Martine Stover and her mother, Janice  Ellerton, are ruled a murder-suicide (because Ms. Stover is incapable of suicide being a quadriplegic). Until  Kermit “Bill” Hodges and Holly Gibney are brought in by Pete Huntley, Bill’s former partner. They’re secondary investigation turns up the first two major clues disproving suicide: the letter “Z” etched at the scene of Mrs. Ellerton’s death (in addition to finding a “Z” in the garage at the house across the street) and the Zappit game tablet.

Then there’s Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr. Mercedes. [Quick recap: Brady tried to blow up a concert venue with thousands of adolescents present. He ends up in a coma after Holly whacks him over the head with the “happy slapper,” and saving the day.] In this final novel of the series, Hartsfield is waking up. Dr. Felix Babineau decided to slip Brady some unapproved experimental drugs which may or may not have contributed to his waking. Brady never fully regains his faculties, but what he does gain is telekinesis. In addition to these new-found powers, that also allow him to overtake people’s minds and thus their bodies, “Library Al” Brooks unwittingly introduces Hartsfield to the Zappit. The gaming tablet becomes Brady’s portal to others’ minds. Specifically the demo “Fishin’ Hole” that hypnotizes the viewer and during their hypnotic state, they become vulnerable to Hartsfield’s manipulation and mind control.

I mean, WOW. Talk about imaginative. As this is simply a review,  I’m going to keep it simple here. Brady Hartsfield uses Library Al (alias Z-Boy) and Dr. Babineau (alias Dr. Z) and eventually Freddi Linklatter (without mind control) to set up his master plan: Mass suicide through hypnosis. Ultimately, Bill Hodges (labeled as Brady Hartsfield’s nemesis), Jerome Robinson, and Holly Gibney foil his plans and take down Hartsfield, Dr. Babineau, and Al Brooks. Yay, the good guys win!

Throughout the story, the hero, Mr. Hodges, is struggling with his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. In reality, pancreatic cancer is basically a death sentence. It is the most “sneaky” cancer and arguably the deadliest because most diagnosed patients die relatively quickly. Even knowing all of this, I still held out hope that Bill would make it to remission and live to see another novel. I mean if mind control is acceptable, why can’t this be? But, at around 70 years old, Kermit William Hodges succumbs to cancer and his friends, Holly and Jerome, and daughter, Allie, are forced to bury him. The story wrapped up here with Holly and Jerome sitting in front of a gravestone marked “WILLIAM KERMIT HODGES” and below the dates, “END OF WATCH.” And of course, I cried.

 

© Chelsie Cummings 2016

Now You See Me by S.J. (Sharon) Bolton

I went into this novel with far higher expectations than I should have. The idea of a Jack the Ripper copycat was enthralling. While the story started off promising, I must admit I was absurdly disappointed a little less than halfway through. Overall, it felt like a mediocre book at best.

SPOILER ALERT:

Detective Constable Lacey Flint tells this story from first person. I’m not a big fan of first person (unless written well) because the narrator typically can’t properly explain other characters. It’s a lot of guessing at other’s feelings and thoughts and notions. The alternating first person reminiscent of Gone Girl is a far superior and exciting way to read at such a perspective, but the drone of a monologue-type first person such as this just isn’t satisfying.

I did not like the characters. I can’t even think of one that was remotely likable or relatable. For me, the characters can make or break a story. I feel like this and the awkward relationships (especially between DC Flint and Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury) were really the downfall for this story. Throughout majority of the story, DI Joesbury is a brute. I don’t know if it’s DC Flint’s paranoia (because it is told from her perspective) or if he was truly out to get here the entire book. It just felt odd to me how they’re made out to be “foes,” at the very least at opposite ends of the spectrum. He’s chasing her, believing there is no copycat and that she’s the killer. She’s avoiding him and arguing with him nearly every time they’re together. Then at the end of the book, she’s all head over heels for him? I just didn’t understand how that happened.

Even through the awful characters and their weird relationships, I kept reading. I had hoped that this Jack the Ripper copycat would have some substance to it; and at first it did. A similar murder to the ripper’s was committed on each “anniversary,” if you will, of the first three of the canonical five. It’s after the second, though, that the plot takes an abrupt left turn. I can understand the argument for Jack the Ripper and the copycat from the book to have been a woman, but the specific line that changed the whole story was when Lacey Flint says, “I killed them” (Paraphrasing here).

Okay, whoa. Stop. What!? That’s how I felt. Next thing I know she’s packing a bag and trying to run away and all of this random nonsense is going on. I was completely confused at this point. I feel like the author may have been trying to create suspense, mystery right here, but it just didn’t work.

The worst part is that this entire “copycat” business was a hoax, a distraction. The killer is revealed to be Flint’s sister (thought to be dead for 10 or so years) who was staging the murders to resemble Jack the Ripper in order to throw off the police.. Huh? But wait, that’s not all. Lacey Flint is actually Victoria Llewellyn whom Cathy Llewellyn, her sister, is impersonating, because Cathy supposedly died in a fire. If that’s not enough to take your breath away (not necessarily in a good way), then the motive surely will.

This entire elaborate string of brutal murders was instigated by an unfortunate gang rape of the two sisters. This made my skin crawl. It’s about 12 years after the fact that Cathy has lost her mind and kills the mothers of the boys that were involved. 12 years later? Kills the moms? Now, the explanations given for her behavior were mediocre. Slap the insanity label on it and it covers all bases, right? No. That’s a cop-out. I needed this to make more sense than it did.

I guess you could see all the “loose ends were tied up,” but I still felt like something was missing when I finished. Maybe it was the elaborate revenge scheme from the rape that made this unrealistic for me. Perhaps it was the fact that the Jack the Ripper copycat wasn’t actually a copycat (this still confuses me). I think, though, that the messy characters and awkward sequence of events are what swayed my final opinion to the negative.

I’m so frustrated by this novel because it was such an excellent idea, just poorly executed. I wouldn’t recommend reading it, however, I wouldn’t say not to either. What I’ve perceived from this book could be completely different for you. That being said, out of 5 stars I’d give it a 2, but you may enjoy it more than I did, as others have.

© Chelsie Cummings 2016

Original of featured photo found on Flickr.

Graphic made by © Chelsie Cummings 2016

The Fireman by Joe Hill

It’s over-played and cliché to say, but: The Fireman was a page-turner. There was action on every page and the story unfolded smoothly and interestingly. It’s hard to believe it was 700+ pages long, because it had me so thoroughly absorbed. I could not read The Fireman fast enough. I couldn’t stop once I started, and now I’m sad it’s over. I savored every word like bites of my favorite cheesecake. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough. My favorite element of this story comes from Harper Willowes: The Portable Mother. Not only am I impressed that Joe Hill was able to craft such an interesting idea, I’m also inspired to create one of my own!  I’m so happy to see Joe Hill not only follow in his father’s footsteps but create footsteps of his own. I can’t wait for more from him!

 

SPOILER ALERT: 

Immediately, we’re thrown into the catastrophic world that’s people are falling ill to draco incendia trychophyton, otherwise known as Dragonscale. Basically, this disease leaves black, tattoo-looking marks on the host’s body, referred to as “scales.” It’s later learned that when the host is under duress or extreme stress, the fungus causes the infected person ignite from within. The group at Camp Wyndham have realized this and fight the illness by singing together—this in turn has caused a glowing impact on them. So, rather than catch fire, when their joyous and mid-song, their “scales” glow various colors. This was such an imaginative and descriptive part of the book.

 

The group at Camp Wyndham give off a cult-like vibe. While Father Storey isn’t exactly a Charles Manson type, his daughter “Mother Carol” definitely had traits of Jim Jones when she took over the camp. Ben Patchett and Michael Lindqvist seemed to be the more innocent bystanders amongst the growing hostility in the camp, so it came as a shock when Michael was revealed to have been a villainous character and Ben became hard and cold as the story went on.

 

Then there’s the title character: The Fireman, John Rookwood. I thought he was going to be invincible and far more sturdy than the clumsy and caring Englishman he turned out to be. Within the overall scheme of things a romantic story is woven of The Fireman and Nurse Willowes. So of course it was devastating when the ending didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped. (Spoiler alert: The Fireman goes up in flames).

 

I absolutely loved the main character, Harper Grayson. She made me laugh, she made me teary-eyed, but most of all she was relatable. Her attitude and wit were very real and personable. When we first meet Nurse Grayson, she is meek, quiet, and basically a doormat for her soon-to-be-psycho husband. The best part of this book, for me, was reading about this pregnant woman running around in a post-apocalyptic world and running things—not because she was pregnant with the sympathy vote, but because she was intelligent, strong, and a fighter. Reading about her development as a character was a story in itself.

 

Of the many plot twists and graphic scenes, there  were three, for me, that really stood out. The first was Michael Lindqvist’s betrayal of Nurse Willowes. I did NOT see that coming. It was clear that someone in the camp had been betraying her, but I was surprised it was him.  I was led to believe that he was on her side, mostly because he was “dating” Allie; I couldn’t get over the fact that it was actually her aunt he was having a relationship with! What really got me, though, was him setting up an 8 month pregnant Nurse Willowes. I was flabbergasted. A very far along Harper is being dragged out to face the entire mob of the camp and forced to confess to every misdeed Michael committed as if she were the perpetrator. I was honestly scared for her and her baby’s life.

 

Which leads me to the second scene: Harper being stoned and assaulted in the snow by Allie’s group of friends. As if it wasn’t bad enough they threw snowballs with stones in them (the point they were trying to make is something you’ll just have to read for yourself!), but then they knock her down to the ground and attack her! Duck taping her hands, duck taping her mouth to trap a stone inside, cutting off her hair! I was truly terrified for her and her pregnancy at this point. I could almost hear her cries and feel her dire need to protect her growing baby. It was probably the most INTENSE scene of the book.

 

The other one was how horrifically and intensely Harper’s husband, Jakob Grayson, turned on her. This was the first of the two betrayals, but probably the more harsh. I mean, in the beginning of the book, he’s made out to be a kind and loving husband. He caters to her and dotes on her. Then all of a sudden, he’s this horrible brute verbally and emotionally abusing her after she contracts Dragonscale. It was almost too much, how easily he turned on her. However, I guess this shows that, in reality, being under an intense amount of pressure can really change a person.

 

I was absolutely devastated to see John Rookwood aka The Fireman die; again I assumed he was invincible. I kept waiting for him to come back somehow. I just wasn’t ready to let him go. When the bullet struck, I thought for sure, or at least hoped, there’d be some crazy miracle, but he was just dead. And then, he was The Phoenix.

 

The ending was touching. Harper bringing the baby into the world, just barely being saved from the cold ocean water with Renée, Nick, and Allie. The Phoenix withering away to ashes and falling onto Harper and her newborn daughter. The greatest hope, though, came from the cliffhanger-type ending: Sailing off into the ocean to find another Dragonscale refuge island. I do hope that this means we can look forward to another installment!

 

 

© Chelsie Cummings 2016