Framed by S. L. McInnis (Grand Central, 330 pages)
Beth Montgomery is the woman who has it all. Her husband is a handsome up-and-coming film producer. She has a small but tasteful house in Beverly Hills and there’s room for an anticipated baby. It all seems so perfect – until we realize it’s not. The great husband is a flirt and the couple are in debt up to their armpits. The planned-for baby isn’t appearing and the great new film needs a monied angel to save the business, the house and the marriage. To add to the misery, Beth left a promising career as a musician to give piano lessons to children who have little to no talent.
Into this sad situation comes Cassie Ogilvy, Beth’s college roommate. Cassie is sexy and uninhibited and on the run from a drug deal gone bad. After a decade of silence, she turns up at Beth’s door needing a room “for a couple of days.” With Cassie comes chaos but also memories of other times and places and that’s the real mystery here. What is the bond between Cassie and Beth? It’s a lot stronger than the one that binds Beth to her perfect life in Los Angeles.
This is a terrific debut for Toronto author McInnis who has a career in television journalism. She is adept at not only setting the scene but her characters, including Beth’s husband, have depth. At its core, this is a novel about female friendships and how they’re forged and how they reignite after time. This is definitely a writer to watch.
Love, Heather by Laurie Petrou (Crooked Lane, 280 pages)
I suspect that this novel by Ryerson professor Laurie Petrou ended up on my shelf by mistake. Petrou already has two novels to her credit and this book, her young-adult debut, is set in the cockpit of a modern high school. But it’s not just for the under-30 crowd. If you’ve ever survived high school, you’ll appreciate this skillfully written book. The central character is Stevie, a very ordinary girl who runs afoul of The Popular Ones. As the mean girls bully and harass, Stevie’s misery is enhanced when her best friend, Lottie, the one person she thought she could count on, betrays her and joins the bullies. Alone, Stevie turns to Dee, a rebellious outsider. Where else do you go when your world collapses?
So far, this plotline is one that novels about teenagers have explored for decades. That this one has a twist, several, in fact, makes it very different and extremely compelling. To say more is to give away bits of the plot and that’s really a crime in a book this good. Just say that it’s been half a century since I hated high school and I remembered every horrible day of it as I read this book. Save it for a cold weekend. You won’t want to put it down.
Alone In The Wild by Kelley Armstrong (Doubleday Canada, 368 pages)
Alone In The Wild is the fifth novel in Armstrong’s Rockton series and it’s the best so far, largely because it calls into question one of Rockton’s most unbreakable rules: No one can move here if they’re under 18. Rockton, as fans already know, is the town where people go to hide, to recover, to lose bad pasts and bad memories. Detective Casey Duncan came here to find a friend and found a new life and a new love with Sheriff Eric Dalton. In a town built on secrets and surrounded by wilderness, it’s good to have a holiday and Casey and Eric are off camping. They hear a baby crying, not a normal sound in the forest. They come upon a woman, murdered, the baby still in her arms: Who was she? Is the baby hers? What happened? Most of all, can the baby be taken into Rockton?
If you haven’t already discovered Ottawa writer Kelley Armstrong, who has three other series on the go, this is the perfect book to pick up, although you may want to read the other six Rockton novels first to find out just how Casey comes to this place and how very different the citizens of Rockton are. Armstrong has built a complete world, with its own rules, morals and customs and populated it with fascinating people and even a little dash of romance to deepen the characters. This is definitely one of her best books.
Foresight by Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi, 336 pages)
I didn’t think anything could top Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee novels for originality and style, but his backstory about the rise of Uncle Chow is even better. These novels (this is the second in the series) take place in China when major political and social changes are happening and those events are worked into the plotlines as Uncle builds his empire. For a history buff like me, it’s irresistible.
This time out, it’s 1980 and Deng Xiaoping plans to turn China into a superpower to best America and the USSR. To begin, he establishes Special Economic Zones along the coast. The plan is to entice foreign investment and to build China trade. The Chinese Communist Party may see the possibilities in capitalist trade but the Triads are way ahead of them. Uncle has overextended himself with his mainland China business and another Triad is attempting to move into his territories. And, of course, he’s been outside China a long time. Things have changed.
Hamilton’s extensive knowledge of Chinese history and business practices are on show in all his novels, but this one is one of his best. This one should net Hamilton another Arthur Ellis nomination.
The Absolution by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated by Victoria Cribb (Minotaur, 368 pages)
Devoted readers of Scandinavian crime fiction are beginning to see the differences between the cultures in thrillers. Iceland, for instance, focuses tightly on the crime and its effects on community. Think of Trapped or any of Arnaldur Indrioason’s novels incorporating local history and habits of hunting and encounters with nature. The Absolution is very much in that vein. Sigurdadottir, one of the country’s finest writers, spins a terrifying tale the begins on Snapchat. A young woman begs for forgiveness. From whom? When her body is found, it’s marked with the number two.
Detective Huldar, Sigudardottir’s regular, is in charge and there are no clues, no forensics. In the absence of it all, he brings in child psychologist Freya as backup. Getting teenagers to talk, especially about one that’s dead, requires a specialist. Freya is able to get some information, most of it negative. The dead girl wasn’t the angel her parents and friends want everyone to remember. Then another girl goes missing and the clock is ticking. Will she be number three? If you haven’t already discovered Sigurdardottir, this is the book to begin.
The Tenant by Katrine Engberg, translated by Tara Chace (Scout, 356 pages)
If Iceland is small-town, Denmark likes the culture and elegance of the city. Copenhagen is the setting for this brilliant first novel by Engberg, a Danish choreographer. There are several tenants in the book and the first one, an elderly man, is taking out his trash when he sees that the door to the flat of two young ladies is open. He pushes it in, calling out, and then collapses. When he comes to, he realizes he’s on top of someone’s leg.
The discovery of a dead woman brings detective Jeppe Korner and his partner, Anette, to investigate. The building is owned by retired professor Esther De Laurenti, a rather bohemian woman with a young lover and many secrets. She was born in the building, which houses a café as well as the flats rented out. She knows everyone in the building well. Strangers do not live here. So how did the girl end up beaten to death in her own home with no one hearing a thing? Anette and Jeppe have their work cut out.
As always in these novels, we have a backstory. Jeppe is just returned from leave after a difficult divorce. Anette has her issues with him. Engberg is excellent at building character and she builds suspense at the same time. The plotline is solid police work, as hallmark of good Danish crime fiction, and the police dig for the clues. While the police work will remind readers of Jo Nesbo, the cultural milieu is far closer to the elegant novels of Peter Hoeg or the Department Q books. Very Danish. Very good.
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