Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger
by Beth Harbison
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9780312599133
On sale July 2013
Ashley Barton was ready to walk down the aisle when the best man broke the news that her fiance had been cheating. Unsure of her next step, she chose escape with the best man—also the groom's brother. Ten years later, Ashley is working in her family's bridal shop after neither relationship worked out. Recent gossip says both brothers will be back in town for a wedding, and emotions collide when they are reunited. What is that little spark she still feels? Is that love, anger—or heartburn from lunch?
Here is a brief excerpt depicting the moments just after Ashley has been told—minutes before her wedding—that her fiance has been cheating on her.
It can't be true, it can't be true, it can't be truuuue, it can't be true.
That beat carried her all the way up to the altar. She was aware of the eyes on her, but she met no one's gaze. Not even Burke's, though she knew—she could just feel—it was questioning.
What's wrong? What's going on?
No clear answer formed in her head. She didn't know what was going on, exactly. She was dazed, being carried on a rickety raft by an ocean of adrenaline.
She didn't know what she was going to do until she was right there by his side.
That's when it all came clear.
She drew her hand back and slapped him with all the power of every unacknowledged hurt he'd ever inflicted on her.
The she turned and ran back down the aisle, out of the church, followed, not by the undoubtedly stunned Burke, but by his best man. His brother.
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
Thomas & Mercer • $14.95 • ISBN 9781611099690
published July 16, 2013
Marcus Sakey's new supernatural thriller, Brilliance, lives up to its name. From the very start, this first novel in a projected series is full of action and intrigue. Since the 198os, about 1% of American children are born "brilliant" with a special gift—they're also known as abnorms. Some of these aborms can be a problem, and it is Nick Cooper's job as a government agent to catch the bad ones—as his own abnormal gift is to hunt his own kind. Can Cooper stop all of the bad abnorms from hurting people, and how does he tell the good guys from the bad?
In the opening chapter, Cooper has spent the day tracking an abnorm and finally catches up with her in a hotel bar in San Antonio, Texas:
Cooper took a sip of coffee. It was burned and watery. "You hear there was another bombing? Philadelphia this time. I was listening to the radio on the way in. Talk radio, some redneck. He said a war was coming. Told us to open our eyes."
"Who's us?" The woman spoke to her hands.
"Around here, I'm pretty sure 'us' means Texans, and 'them' means the other seven billion on the planet."
"Sure. Because there aren't any brilliants in Texas."
Cooper shrugged, took another sip of his coffee. "Fewer than some other places. The same percentage are born here, but they tend to move to more liberal areas with larger population density. Greater tolerance, and more chance to be with their own kind. There are gifted in Texas, but you'll find more per capita in Los Angeles or New York." He paused. "Or Boston."
Alex Vasquez's fingers went white around her bottle of Bud. She'd been slouching before, the lousy posture of a programmer who spent whole days plugged in, but now she straightened. For a long moment she stared straight ahead. "You're not a cop."
Through some twisted ups and downs, the fast-paced Brilliance has all of the best with manipulation, revolution and social commentary in a world disturbingly close to our own. In an interview, author Marcus Sakey said that he hates for his plots to be revealed, so I will stop there and simply say be ready to stay up all night with this one.
Will you be reading Brilliance? What are you reading during Private Eye July?
A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993219
Published March 12, 2013
Like The Privileges, this novel tells the story of a wealthy couple. But here the couple find themselves in the midst of a major disaster: The husband, Ben, has a total breakdown, eventually getting himself a DWI and an accusation of sexual harassment from a summer associate at his law firm. Helen, the main character and Ben's wife, divorces her husband and must figure out a way to support herself and her daughter. Turns out she has a knack for PR. Specifically, she intuitively knows how to make powerful men (think, politicians embroiled in sex scandals) apologize. The story is a clever critique of our culture—both amusing and timely. Though A Thousand Pardons lacks the grace of The Privileges, I thought it was an entertaining read, and I enjoyed watching Helen's reinvention.
Here's an excerpt from an early scene, in which Helen must reason with a New York councilman whose violent actions have been caught on a surveillance camera. Helen's the first one speaking, then the councilman.
"You will admit to everything. You will apologize to this young woman, by name, for your violent behavior. You will not use any phrases like 'moment of weakness' or 'regrettable incident.' You will apologize to your wife, and to your children, and to your parents if they are still alive . . . Basically, you will get up in front of the cameras and make an offering of yourself."
Some of the redness drained from his face as she spoke; she could feel, as she'd felt before, the power her words gave her over him. "You really think that's the play?" he said.
"That is the only play. To ask forgiveness. If you hold back in any way, the story lives. Let me ask you this: presumably you are a man with ambitions. What do you want to happen now? What is the outcome that will put those ambitions back on the track that your own mistakes threw them off of?"
He tipped back noiselessly in his chair. "I want to stay in office," he said. "I want to be reelected. This was a stupid thing for me to have done, but it does not define me. It was a one-time thing, and I want to get away from it."
"You will never get away from it," Helen said. "But you can incorporate it into the narrative. You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way. No 'I was drunk,' no 'she hit me first.' You have to take, and answer, every question. You have to hold your temper when people try to get you lose it. Do you think you can do that?"
Criminal Enterprise by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $26.95 • ISBN 9780399157905
Published March 21, 2013
I like Laukkanen's books because they start with a scenario that's plausible given our current economy. In The Professionals, a group of under-employed college grads turn to kidnapping to pay the bills. In Criminal Enterprise, a family man is laid off from his high-paying corporate job. He's got a pricey mortgage, a fancy car, kids, a stay-at-home wife. So what's he do to stay afloat? He starts robbing banks, of course (though it doesn't take long for Windermere and Stevens to get on his tail). Here's an early scene:
Tomlin settled into a rhythm. A few days a week doing taxes for senior citizens, a couple contract jobs for friends at big firms. A robbery every few weeks, when the money got low.
Or, more and more, whenever the mood struck him.
It wasn't just about the money anymore. Not even close. It was about the excitement, the power, the quick jolt of electricity he felt when the pretty tellers wilted at the sight of his gun. It was the same thrill he'd once felt when he walked through his office, watching the worker drones stiffen at their cubicles, knowing the room's collective sphincter had tightened the moment he walked through the door. It was power. Control. Robbing banks filled the void while it paid off his mortgage. And nobody had figured him out.
Tomlin found a small office in Lowertown, east of downtown Saint Paul. It was an old, musty low-rise with patchy off white walls and buzzing fluorescent lights, graffiti on the sooty facade. But Tomlin didn't much care for looks. An office would provide cover. An easy way to launder the robbery money.
What are you reading today?
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing • $24.99 • ISBN 9781455507214
On sale now
At the heart of The Middlesteins is Edie, the matriarch of a Jewish family in Chicago. When we meet her, she is a child who has discovered her complete love of eating—a love that just might kill her, as she ages and comes to weigh more than 300 pounds and must undergo various surgeries related to her size. Entwined with Edie's story are various family members—like her two adult children and her daughter-in-law, a woman so obsessed with healthy eating that she'll hardly let her kids use table salt on a bland piece of salmon.
During the holidays—a time so filled with family togetherness—I love a good novel that portrays family dynamics in all their messy glory. Even better if the book makes me laugh and tugs at my heart. The Middlesteins does this and more. It's also quite short (less than 300 pages) and zips along quickly, so it would be perfect for a plane ride home.
Here's a short excerpt from the beginning of the book, when daughter-in-law Rachelle—a woman whose mission in life is to "keep her family happy and healthy"—goes over to Edie's house for an intervention. She's supposed to be talking to Edie about getting healthier, but she dreads this task. Here's what happens when she stops in front of Edie's house.
The front door to the house opened; it was Edie, wrapped in her enormous mink coat and matching hat, an inheritance from her own oversized mother. ("I am morally opposed to fur," Edie had told Rachelle once. "But since it's already here, what am I going to do? Throw it away?" Rachelle had fingered the coat delicately with her fine, manicured hand, and imagined having it taken in—dramatically—someday for herself. "You can't waste mink," agreed Rachelle.) Edie got into her car, and before Rachelle could get out of her own car to stop her, drove off.
Rachelle didn't hesitate. She followed her mother-in-law, past the high school—a digital marquee in front of the school flashing GO TEAM! again and again—until she pulled into a McDonald's parking lot. She made it through the drive-thru swiftly and then pulled out onto the road back to the subdivisions, but instead of heading home she went in the other direction, and Rachelle still followed her—she was morbidly curious at this point—this time into a Burger King, again through the drive-thru window, pausing before she exited back onto the main road in front of a garbage can in the parking lot, into which she tossed her now-empty, crumpled McDonald's bag through her window. A half beat later, she hurled an empty plastic cup. Perfect aim.
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780062201058
On sale February 5, 2013
And what a page-turner it is. The plot follows the life of a seemingly perfect woman who is married to a National Book Award-winning author. They spend their summers in a lovely cottage in East Hampton; life is good. Early in the novel, they take a young woman, Claire, under their wings, and she comes to adore Harry and Maddy. Claire's very sad when the summer is over, but that winter she comes back into their lives with a vengeance, and nothing is ever the same . . .
The editor's letter compares Indiscretion to The Great Gatsby. Though the storytelling here doesn't have the elegance of Fitzgerald's classic (what does?), the plot does follow the same sort of tortured upper-class characters who experience a tragic fall from grace. If you like reading about glamorous lifestyles and the split-second choices that can upend a person's life, then this book is for you.
In the novel, the narrator is Maddy's best friend, Walter, an observer of the summer's activities and all that comes after. Here's an early scene:
Labor Day. The summer's last hurrah. Already night is falling earlier. Autumn is waiting on the doorstep. People bring sweaters when they go out in the evening.
Claire is driving with me. She has been out every weekend. She is now one of the gang, part of a nucleus that never changes even when minor characters drift in and out at restaurants, cocktail parties, lazy afternoons at the Winslows' or at the beach, nights playing charades, sailing in my little sailboat, Johnny's ninth birthday, skinny-dipping in the ocean, or sitting under the stars listening to Verdi. We are all tan. [...]
I am deposing her. Where she was born, where she lived, where she went to college, what she studied, why she does what she does, who she is. My right hand itches for a yellow legal pad to scratch it all down, but I will remember it well enough.
She is a willing witness, her tongue loosened by gin. And I am on my best behavior, not aggressive, but solicitous, empathetic. She tells me about her father, her French mother, her younger brother, who lives in California, where he works for a software company. But I also know witnesses have their own motivations. They will lie, or twist facts, if they have to. They can be resentful or closed, releasing only the most meager information. Others want me to like them thinking that will color my interpretation of the law.
And it is clear that Claire wants me to like her. Not romantically, alas. No, she is too easy around me for that. Instead, she treats me the way one would treat a prospective employer.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Little, Brown • $25.99 • ISBN 9780316204279
on sale August 14, 2012
Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette may just be the most unique and hilarious book I've read all year. It's a sendup of the culture of Microsoft and Seattle private schools. An epistolary novel that includes emails, faxes, police reports and even a TED talk. A surprisingly poignant story of a family's love.
A former TV writer, Semple partially based the novel on her own experience of moving from Los Angeles to Seattle, she explains in an interview in BookPage. At first, she didn't like the city. (She likes it now.) Neither does her main character Bernadette, an agoraphobic architect who makes the same move, never to design again, after a terrible accident at the beginning of her high-profile career. In Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette disappears after a disastrous school fundraiser and before a planned family trip to Antarctica. Her resourceful daughter Bee will do anything to figure out where she's gone.
Here's a section in Bernadette's voice. Are you hooked yet? You can start reading more on Tuesday, when the novel goes on sale.
As much as I try not to engage people in the grocery checkout, I couldn't resist one day when I overheard one refer to Seattle as "cosmopolitan." Encouraged, I asked, "Really?" She said, Sure, Seattle is full of people from all over. "Like where?" Her answer, "Alasksa. I have a ton of friends from Alaska." Whoomp, there it is.
Let's play a game. I'll say a word, and you say the first word that pops into your head. Ready?
What you've heard about the rain: it's all true. So you'd think it would become part of the fabric, especially among the lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here's what they'll say: "Can you believe the weather?" And you want to say, "Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can't believe is that I'm actually having a conversation about the weather." But I don't say that, you see, because that would be instigating a fight, something I try my best to avoid, with mixed results.
Getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Even sleeping makes my heart race!
What are you reading today?
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
Minotaur • $24.99 • ISBN 9781250003485
On sale August 21, 2012
Before I even cracked the cover, it was obvious that Julia Keller's debut novel, A Killing in the Hills, has a lot going for it. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune journalist, and her book has received advanced praise from four of the best suspense novelists around: Dennis Lehane, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman and Tom Franklin. I'd call that a pre-publication publicity home run . . . wouldn't you?
Fortunately, the story that's inside the cover holds up to the hype. It's a spooky and atmospheric tale of what happens after three men are murdered in a coffee shop in the small Appalachian town of Acker's Gap, West Virginia. A teenaged waitress sees the murders, but she's not just any old witness: Her mother is the county prosecuting attorney. Turns out both mother and daughter have a stake in catching the killer . . . who may not be done with his rampage.
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of this suspenseful story:
The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cubs of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.
Then sipping. Then blowing again.
Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.
Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half-visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You can't hide a thing in here.
She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was The line.
Because at this point, she would realize later, these three old men had less than a minute to live.
What are you reading today?
And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman
Morrow • $26.99 • ISBN 9780061706875
On sale August 14, 2012
I am a huge fan of Laura Lippman—her smart thrillers make me think, stick with me for days and (best of all!) keep me turning pages long into the night. Her newest novel, And When She Was Good, is no exception. It's also now officially tied with I'd Know You Anywhere as my favorite Lippman thriller.
The story is about Helen, a smart girl from an abusive family who eventually turns to sex work to make ends meet. She risks her life to sneak away to the library, but she never receives a formal education. She ends up pregnant by her pimp, who eventually goes to jail for a series of illegal deeds. Fast forward more than 15 years, and Helen—now Heloise—has a relatively normal life. She lives in a nice house on a quiet street, and her polite son excels in school. Only thing out of the ordinary is that she's actually an efficient and successful suburban madam (and working call girl), catering to the beltway's elite. She's got a clever cover for her business and a foolproof method of destroying her paper trail—but her situation starts to get increasingly dire when a madam from the next county over winds up dead. Here's a taste of the plot:
When the Suburban Madam first showed up in the news, she was defiant and cocky, bragging of a little black book that would strike fear in the hearts of powerful men throughout the state. She gave interviews. She dropped tantalizing hints about shocking revelations to come. She allowed herself to be photographed in her determinedly Pottery Barn-ed family room. She made a point of saying how tough she was, indomitable, someone who never ran from a fight. Now, a month out from trial, she is dead, discovered in her own garage, in her Honda Pilot, which was chugging away. If the news reporters are to be believed—always a big if, in Heloise's mind—it appears there never was a black book, no list of powerful men, no big revelations in her computer despite diligent searching and scrubbing by the authorities. Lies? Bluffs? Delusions? Perhaps she was just an ordinary sex worker who thought she had a better chance at a book deal or a stint on reality television if she claimed to run something more grandiose.
A woman's voice breaks into Heloise's thoughts.
"How pathetic," she says. "Women like that—all one can do is pity them."
The woman's pronouncement is not that different from what Heloise has been thinking, yet she finds herself automatically switching sides.
What are you reading today? Have you read any good thrillers lately?
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781451657708
On sale August 7, 2012
Vaddey Ratner's debut novel caught my attention when I read this effusive recommendation from author Chris Cleave: "In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary acts of storytelling I have ever encountered." Turns out the story, which details a family's experience during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, actually lives up to that high praise.
The main character and narrator is Raami, a tough little girl who is separated from her family and forced to perform hard physical labor—an experience that mirrors the real life of the author, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power. It is difficult to read about Raami's hardships, and sometimes it seems like she will never emerge from her life's hell. What makes the story so remarkable, however, is how Ratner constantly juxtaposes horror with small moments of beauty. Even her characters are aware of this tension, and it really is satisfying to read about the resilience of human beings.
Here are a couple examples:
"Do you know why I told you stories, Raami?" he [her father] asked. We'd left the others, their panic and fears, and hid ourselves in the solitude of the meditation pavilion.
I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.
"When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly." His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world's suffering." He glanced up at the face of the wooden Buddha in its corner of the room and, as if conceding to some argument they'd had earlier, murmured, "Yes, it's true everywhere you look there is suffering—an old man has disappeared, a baby died and his coffin is a desk, we live in the classrooms haunted by ghosts, this sacred ground is stained with the blood of murdered monks." He swallowed, then cupping my face in his hands, continued, "My greatest desire, Raami, is to see you live. If I must suffer so that you can live, then I will gladly give up my life for you, just as I once gave up everything to see you walk."
Joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes whether by grace or misfortune they meet and become each other's companion.