Back of Beyond by C. J. Box

Back of Beyond
by
C. J. Box

Rating:

Cody Hoyt is a rogue investigator for Montana’s Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department, returning to his home town after the job and more went wrong in Colorado. He’s thirty-eight, divorced, and a recovering alcoholic. When his AA sponsor dies in a suspicious cabin fire, Cody is sure it’s murder. A clue points to a wilderness adventure outfitter and an upcoming trip to Yellowstone National Park. Is this the same trip his teenage son, Justin is about to take?

Cody is determined to stay on the wagon and avenge his sponsor’s death and he will do anything to protect his son. But how can he find Justin and the group which is traveling by horseback in the park’s back of beyond? It’s not long before he has broken too many rules to count and is forced to turn in his badge and weapon. As he goes off on his own, Cody’s only help comes from his ally in the department, Larry Olson.

In an exciting story that alternates between Cody’s investigation and the group’s trip, readers will try to assemble the clues and facts. Meantime, the power struggles and dynamics between the group and its guides is a fascinating study of human behavior. Several characters act suspiciously, some are downright unlikable, and some are fools or just plain weak. Justin is indeed on the trip, as well as two sisters from another family. One has sharp insight and the other has eyes for Justin, giving the story a nice balance of the teenage point of view.

As members dissent and others disappear, readers know it is only a matter of time before the killer is identified. But whether Cody can find the group in time is another matter. Good luck even trying to figure it out. You will need to read to the wild finish to learn all the connections!

Back of Beyond is a highly entertaining mystery adventure. This is the first C. J. Box book I have read and I’m sure I will read more. Of course, there is the required suspension of disbelief during certain developments, but I think that is part of the package in this genre.

What I liked best about the story is the way Box describes Yellowstone because it made me want to book a trip. An avid outdoorsman, Box takes pride in writing about things he knows. I’d say it shows.

C.J. Box is the author of twenty-seven novels, including the popular Joe Pickett series. Back of Beyond is a standalone novel and he has several others, including Blue Heaven (2009), which won the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Novel.

You can learn more about C. J. Box from this short interview from the 2016 ThirllerFest.

Have you read anything by C. J. Box? Are you a Joe Pickett fan? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Fool Me Once
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Here’s a fast and easy-to-read mystery/thriller about a tough-acting female veteran who is battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from tours in the Middle East and is caught in a twisted story of power, corruption and murder.

As an army helicopter pilot in Iraq, Maya Stern Burkett always made smart, calculated decisions, until one went horribly bad. Now she’s back in New York, trying to keep it together, but she has a lot of problems. Her sister, Claire is dead and she’s just buried her husband, Joe, the victim of a Central Park shooting. On top of that, debilitating nightmares about her final mission wreak havoc on her mental state. Maya’s only comfort is her two-year-old daughter, Lily.

As Joe’s widow in the ultra-wealthy and powerful Burkett family, Maya’s position has changed. She hadn’t questioned their involvement in Burkett family controlling decisions, including hiring Isabella as a nanny. But her suspicions rise when a disturbing image appears on the nanny cam.

Police are also investigating the murders and wonder if they are connected, while Maya digs in rogue style, always packing a concealed weapon. This mystery is full of slowly revealed secrets, some from happenings at Joe’s elite Main Line prep school outside of Philadelphia. It’s not sorted out until a showdown in the final pages, keeping true to the genre.

While Fool Me Once is not a heavy read, Coben explores serious issues, including the jarring difference between serving in the military and returning home to a normal life. He raises questions about how best to treat PTSD and other mental illnesses, noting that these are not things a person can just “shake off.” In addition, through Maya’s character, a serious gun-lover, he explores the hotly-debated subject of Second Amendment rights.

Coben introduces many suspicious side characters to the story, making it hard to guess where the plot will go. I like this technique because it gives the reader a lot to think about. Coben’s books are normally set in the New York and New Jersey and, having grown up in that area, I enjoy the references to towns and places I know. He also throws little nuggets of local knowledge into his stories, like where the good malls are, and I like this humor.

I thought Fool Me Once was entertaining, but in the end, just okay, due to many unbelievable plot developments. The movie is also in the works, starring Julia Roberts. I would recommend it as a good book to read on an airplane or on vacation or as a light read when you’re curled up on a couch. This is my fourth standalone Coben book. He also writes the Myron and Mickey Bolitar series, which I have not read. I still enjoy Coben as an author and will likely read more.

Have you read any books by Harlan Coben? Have you read his series? Leave a comment and check out these Harlan Coben reviews:

Caught
Run Away
Tell No One

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Two Nights by Kathy Reichs

Two Nights
by
Kathy Reichs

Rating:

Sunnie Night has retreated to a solitary life. After a violent altercation, she has voluntarily stepped down from her military cop job. Nursing a damaged eye and a deeply scarred past, Sunnie lives on the isolated Goat Island off the coast of South Carolina. Her only companion is a pet squirrel named Bob.

But her foster father, Beau has been keeping an eye on Sunnie and he pays her a visit with information of an investigative job he’s sure will help her escape the past.

The case involves a bombing of a Jewish school in Chicago. Opaline Drucker’s daughter and grandson were killed in the bombing and her granddaughter, Stella, is missing. Chicago police investigated for a year, with no solid leads. With a fat stipend, Sunnie heads out to see what she can find.

With an attitude that cuts through steel, Sunnie is an ace investigator with an uncanny instinct and she knows how to handle the bad guys. But she’s not as good dealing with colleagues and superiors who don’t appreciate her sarcasm and attitude. While painful memories often get in the way of her decisions, her sharp instinct saves her from many dangerous encounters. Needing extra support, she calls on her twin brother, Gus to help solve the case. Gus knows what he’s doing and he may be the only person who completely understands Sunnie.

The investigation soon uncovers a religious cult, determined to exact revenge on anything related to Islam. Sunnie is sure they have kidnapped Stella. She won’t stop until she finds her and brings closure to her own similar history.

I enjoyed reading this fast story, but in the end I thought it was just okay, with unremarkable characters. I also found it hard to follow the clipped dialogue and felt that many of the scenes and clues were unrealistic. Maybe that’s the case with the first book of a likely series.

Kathy Reichs is best known for her Temperance Brennan series. Her heroine, Brennan, is also portrayed in the popular Fox TV show “Bones.” Reader comments and reviews say this series is excellent and very different from Two Nights.

Have you read any books by Kathy Reichs? Have you watched “Bones?”

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The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

The Escape Room
by
Megan Goldin

Rating:

When Vincent deVries of Stanhope & Sons summons his Wall Street investment banker team to a compulsory meeting, the last thing they expect is an escape room activity in an elevator. They grudgingly put their plans on hold. Sam has missed his flight to Antigua and his wife is livid. Sylvie might still make her flight to Paris to meet her boyfriend, but she hasn’t packed. And Jules has downed a couple whiskeys on his way over. The group has intense, cutthroat relationships with each other and there are rumors of looming layoffs. Each knows they can’t afford to miss the meeting, which by the way is in an unfinished office building. Even Vincent, their boss, is unsure who really called them together.

In a locked and stalled elevator, the group goes to work on the cryptic clues, encouraged as they advance to the next levels. But soon they suspect they are trapped and begin to turn on each other. As time passes, dynamics between Vincent’s team deteriorate, leading to shocking power plays. What kind of life or death exercise is this?

In alternating chapters, we meet Sara Hall, a former Stanhope banker, who tells of joining Vincent’s team and enduring the grueling hours and impossible deadlines that are part of the ultra-competitive banking scene. Sara’s story advances as the elevator exercise deteriorates, and the reader must wait for the big reveal.

I enjoyed this modern and original setting that uses a tried and true dynamic – forcing people who hate each other into dangerous and confined situations and seeing what happens. I’ve always been a reader who likes to simply go along for the ride, instead of working out the angles, and I like how the conflicts between Sylvie, Jules, Sam and Vincent develop. I think the author does a great job showing how Vincent continues to try to lead the group, despite the hatred between its members.

Although the finish was a little far-fetched, I was otherwise satisfied with how the author tied up the loose ends and I liked reading about the double-edged flash and glamour of the investment banking world. I recommend The Escape Room to readers who like mysteries and thrillers in which characters are pushed to the extreme.

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Those People by Louise Candlish

Those People
by
Louise Candlish

Rating:

On the problem of despicable neighbors, here’s a new book about a couple that moves into an idyllic and award-winning neighborhood in South London and drives the families to desperation. Straight away, Darren and Jodie annoy the neighbors with dramatic home renovations in a style that doesn’t fit their picture-perfect street. Darren hacks away at walls and uses loud power tools and construction equipment, but that’s only the beginning. The couple also runs a used car business out of their driveway, and the unsightly vehicles soon take up spaces on the street. Tension grows when Darren refuses to move the cars for the street’s weekly Play Out Sunday, when neighbors clear the street of cars and traffic in order to let their children play safely. At night, even louder music and partying keeps the neighborhood awake, especially their direct neighbors, Ant and Em Kendall and their brand new baby.

This is a street of upwardly mobile families, who are used to getting what they want. They quickly organize a multi-pronged effort to either stop the new neighbors’ low class and unacceptable behavior or drive them out. Surveillance cameras, tough talk and complaints soon spiral out of control. Of added interest is a look at the families on the street, their marriages and relationships to each other. Each is nursing a private beef with a spouse, partner or neighbor and these inner conflicts cause them to make wildly irrational decisions, leading to a shocking fatal accident.

As inspectors investigate the accident, readers begin to wonder whether the author’s title refers more to the new neighbors or the rest of the group. I enjoyed reading their statements and interviews with the police and seeing how they dig themselves deeper into the pit of suspicion. These reckless behaviors lead to a second tragedy, muddled by the neighbors’ escalating dread of being implicated.

This is also a story chock full of unlikable characters, and not just Darren and Jodie. Candlish tells the story from different points of view and I liked trying to understand the neighbors’ thoughts. Some readers may not find that relatable, but I would much rather experience these people in the pages than on my street!

There are many red herrings and an abrupt open-ended finish, leaving the reader to imagine what may happen. I like this kind of ending and think it would be a great book club book. I recommend Those People to those who are looking for a quick read and enjoy vicarious conflicts!

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Run Away by Harlan Coben

Run Away
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Simon Greene is desperate to find his daughter Paige, who has dropped out of college, is addicted to drugs, and on the run with her user boyfriend, Aaron. Acting on a tip, Simon sees her in Central Park and is sure he can save her. But Paige runs and Simon may never catch up.

Harlan Coben’s latest action thriller looks at a seemingly normal family with highly successful parents and smart children as they struggle with one daughter’s addiction. How right it had all seemed when Paige went off to college! Now the future is anything but bright.

Before long, Simon and his wife, Ingrid are deep into trouble and surrounded by highly dangerous people. Murder, conspiracies, family secrets, paid assassins and a cult cloud and threaten their search for Paige and before long, Simon is packing a weapon.

I enjoyed this fast-paced story, with a plot that’s hard to explain without spoilers. Coben gives the reader a view of a happy marriage that comes close to crumbling and a family that, like many families, isn’t what it seems. As in the two other Coben books I’ve read, I like the author’s references to New Jersey and New York, an area where I grew up.

Run Away is entertaining, but the reader will need to accept several far-fetched plot developments. I was okay with them, but did not feel the story was as good as the other Coben books I’ve read (see below). Despite this comment, I would recommend Run Away to readers looking for a fast-paced, not-too-deep summer read and, since summer has just begun, the timing is right!

Looking for other Harlan Coben books? Try Caught and Tell No One

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What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know
by
Laura Lippman

Rating:

It’s 1975 when Sunny and Heather Bethany disappear from a busy mall outside Baltimore, Maryland. Under eye-rolling protest to her parents, Sunny had agreed to let her younger sister tag along and eleven-year-old Heather was thrilled to go. Maybe she’d spend her birthday money and they’d definitely get a Karmelkorn. But at fifteen, Sunny had her own plans and the two had separated when they arrived. ”I don’t want to do anything with you. I don’t care where you go. Just do your own thing and come back here at five-twenty,” she’d told her sister.

At 5:30, Dave Bethany waited and waited to pick up his daughters, but they never showed. What happened that day and when do you stop looking? Despite an intensive investigation, the case goes cold, and their exhausted parents’ lives are shattered.

Thirty years later, a mysterious woman returns to Baltimore and claims to be Heather. She knows a great deal about that day in 1975, the Bethany family, and the old neighborhood, but her wily personality is making the detectives suspicious.

In this character-driven mystery, the key players lead the reader through the day the girls disappear and the details of the case. Heading the investigation are Detective Kevin Infante, a twice-divorced ladies’ man and retired detective Chet Willoughby, who was so invested in the case he took the file home with him when he left the force.

The story is written in past and present and from various points of view and readers get a look at the Bethany family before and after the girls’ disappearance, including the parents’ imperfect marriage. I thought it was particularly interesting to see how Dave and Miriam Bethany cope and what they do as the years pass. They have both faced the same tragedy, but adapt in very different ways.

Heather or no, whoever this woman is, she has a painful past and has learned how to survive under the radar, mostly by using her quick mind and manipulative personality.

Lippman reveals key details as the story develops. Some are false leads, others suggest the truth. All is revealed in the final pages with a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed reading this mystery, published in 2007. Laura Lippman is a New York Times best-selling author of nineteen novels, both stand-alones and the Tess Monaghan series. Her newest standalone, Sunburn, looks like a good summer read!

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Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek
by
Angie Kim

Rating:

To what lengths would you go to achieve normalcy? To fit in? To have the kind of regular life that everyone around you seems to enjoy? Would you lie? Would you commit murder? Would you frame someone else for the crime? These questions are rooted in Miracle Creek, a mystery/courtroom drama in which a young mother stands trial for the murder of her 8-year-old autistic son.

In her debut novel, Angie Kim shows how a controversial treatment for autism and other health problems can lead to desperation. Parents and others in this story hope that hyperbaric oxygen therapy (H-BOT) will correct, reverse and improve autism, brain damage and even infertility, and give their families the normal lives they deserve.

The story takes place in 2008, in Miracle Creek, Virginia, and is set at the Yoo family’s H-BOT facility where they call their chamber the “Miracle Submarine.” After years of sacrifice, Pak Yoo, his wife, Young and their teenage daughter, Mary, have moved to Miracle Creek to set up their business. Young and Mary have been in the country for four years, waiting for Pak to join them. He has been a “wild-goose-father” in Korea, working for an H-BOT company and preparing to come to America. They are certain this is how they will secure a future for Mary.

Regulars include three hyper-focused mothers who are desperate to improve their children’s, and their own, lives and a young man seeking fertility treatment. During one evening session, an explosion rips through the barn where the chamber is housed. Two people are killed, including the boy, Henry Ward, and others are severely injured. Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, had chosen not to enter the chamber with her son that night and everyone suspects murder.

The story quickly advances one year to the trial where testimony and back stories fill in missing pieces, with just enough lies, secrets, rivalry and false friendships between the mothers to cast doubt on others besides Elizabeth. In a parallel story about fitting in, the reader also learns more about Pak Yoo, his family and their struggles to assimilate into American life, including the prejudice against and ignorance about their Korean culture.

Throughout, Pak is honor-bound to lead and protect his family and Young must decide whether to obey or to think for herself. In addition, Mary’s secret teenage life reveals a shocking relationship with repercussions that shake both their family and the others involved in the treatment.

One of the strongest parts of the story is how Kim’s characters experience a range of troubling emotions including resentment and wild fantasies about being freed from their burdens and contemplating whose life is more worth saving, a sobering look at the roller coaster lives of special needs families.

I enjoyed reading Miracle Creek because of its original ideas and engaging plot and recommend it to readers who like character-driven stories about the devastating impact secrets can have. I’m looking forward to future stories by Angie Kim!

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Book Club Mom’s May recap – books, birthdays and a graduation

I don’t know what happened to May, but here we are at the finish. It’s a big month for birthdays in my family and we squeezed in a college graduation too! It’s always nice to settle into a comfy chair during the down times and relax with a book, a show or a puzzle.

I’ve become a bit crazy with a word game I have on my ancient Kindle called Every Word: Crossings, and I have been playing it obsessively. I never look at that as a waste of time, though. Things like that always help me sort out my day.

And I went a little overboard with my Barbie doll posts (see below), but it’s been fun (for me, at least!) sharing something that I loved as a girl.


This month, I read and reviewed three regular books:

 

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd – if you like mystery series, this is the first of the Bess Crawford stories, set in England during World War I. I enjoyed both the characters and the historical setting. The author, Charles Todd, is actually a mother-son writing team.


More and more, it seems, fiction books are being co-authored and this month I wrote a post about this very thing!

Author teams and pen names – if the story’s good, does it matter? Not to me!


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – in this memoir about becoming a female scientist, Jahren writes a compelling personal story about family, love, friendship, mental health and the difficulties of earning a living as a scientist. (Jahren made it big, after a long road, and has won many awards.)


The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of my Father by Janny Scott – a biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter. A tale of four generations of a wealthy Main Line, Pennsylvania family and their 800-acre estate and the complicated relationships among family members.


As I mentioned above, I also started a series that celebrates books about the Barbie doll’s 60th birthday. Here are the first two posts, indulging my obsession. I’ll share my final Barbie post next week.

Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them – Carol Spencer

Look what Barbie’s wearing! Barbie Fashion 1959-1967 by Sarah Sink Eames


May was a busier indie author month. I introduced three hard-working writers:

Richard Doiron
Lucia N. Davis
Frank Prem

If you are an indie or self-published author and would like to be featured on Who’s That Indie Author, please email me at bvitelli2009@gmail.com. To shake things up, I’ve updated my interview with a new set of questions!


Next week, we’re starting a Summer Reading program at the library where I work, so I’ll be signing up for that. I plan to work these two books onto my list:

June book previews: Lot – Stories by Bryan Washington and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim


And last, I was sorry to see that American author Herman Wouk died on May 17, at age 103. I’ve enjoyed many of his books and think I will go back to some of them this summer. I had a fun time looking at these book covers – did you notice that the last two, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, fit together to make a bigger picture?

Remembering American author Herman Wouk, 1915 – 2019

I hope you had a good month, out in the world and between the pages. I’m looking forward to a good summer!

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