The Farm by Joanne Ramos, Doubleday Canada, 326 pages
Every season has its Big Book, the one everyone is talking about, and this season, it’s The Farm. This debut by Joanne Ramos, a Filipino-American staff writer for the Economist, is as good as most first novels get. There are gripping characters (with one flop) and a compelling storyline, as well as some page-ripping suspense. There are also thoughts about postcolonialism, globalism, capitalism and some questionable moral choices, the consequences of which we privileged residents in the developed world would rather ignore. If Thomas Piketty were to turn his hand to crime fiction, The Farm just might be the outcome.
The setting is now and the place is New York State. Jane and Evelyn are hardworking Filipino women who look after the rich. Evelyn is a sought-after baby nurse (her list of what to do and not to do when you work for the very rich is worth the price of the book) and Jane is a new mother, cleaning in a nursing home. Then a chance comes for some real money. All Jane has to do is be a surrogate and spend a few months in ritzy Golden Oaks, a luxury waiting-room/care facility. She will be massaged, fed organic foods, medically attended and generally cossetted until the baby’s birth. Then she’ll be paid a small fortune to get on with her improved life. Naturally, things are not what they seem. Racism and classism exist even in the surrogate camp. Pretty white girls are preferred to pretty brown ones. And what if things go wrong? The proprietess, Mae Yu, cracks her financial whip. (Yu is Ramos’s one failure as a character. She’s a sneering cartoon.)
How the plotlines work out is what good mysteries are all about, and this is a good one. In the week when I read this book, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian announced the birth of their fourth child by surrogate. The Farm brings to the fore the many thorny issues of this path to parenthood, in fiction and in the real world.
Cemetery Road by Greg Iles, William Morrow, 608 pages
Greg Iles is the master of the new Southern Gothic novel. His Natchez trilogy – three books at 800 pages each – put paid to the old “moonlight and magnolias” version of the south. Instead, we have poverty, race, invisible empires, and as always, the dead hand of the past emerging in the present. Cemetery Road is about all of those and, in Iles’s very elegant prose, much more. When a book exceeds 600 pages with no filler, as this one does, it has a great story.
Journalist Marshall McEwen returns to his hometown of Bienville, Mississippi, to assist his ailing father and his local newspaper, The Watchman. Marshall quickly realizes that the paper is dying and so is the town. There are no jobs and no future. Then a miracle occurs. A Chinese consortium wants to build a paper mill outside town. It will mean economic salvation. But a local archaeologist uncovers a possible problem with the site and, before he can prove his finding, he’s murdered. It’s clear that someone(s) wanted him silenced, but was it just about the mill? Or are there other even more sinister motives at hand?
Fans of Iles know that there will be many deadly secrets to uncover. There is a cabal of powerful local men called the Poker Club, a beautiful woman with past associations with Marshall and a long-ago death in his family that influences his own actions. Old friends call up old favours to be paid and there’s not a magnolia tree in sight. This is definitely a book to save for a summer vacation when you can read unhindered. Every page of the 600 counts.
If She Wakes by Michael Koryta, Little, Brown, 400 pages
So-called “locked-in syndrome” is one of the scariest plotlines in fiction and, in fact, in real life. It’s been used effectively in crime fiction over the years and this new iteration by Michael Koryta is a standout. Tara Beckley, 18, lies in bed, seemingly in a vegetative state. But Tara is alert: The question is how did she get there?
Meanwhile, Abby Kaplan, an insurance investigator, is following up on the accident that put Tara in that bed and which also killed a prominent scientist. It all seems straightforward but there are a few things that puzzle Abby. At the same time (the novel is told from the various characters’ points of view), we know that the accident was planned by a mystery man – a paid assassin who carefully plots his crimes and uses all the most modern techniques of surveillance to spy on Tara and Abby. He has no reason to harm Tara further, if she doesn’t wake up. But as he tracks her progress, he turns his dangerous attention to her courageous and intelligent sister. This is an excellent tale with plenty of suspense and engaging characters and is definitely one of Koryta’s best.
Diary of a Dead Man On Leave by David Downing, Soho Press, 312 pages
Dead men on leave are Russian agents working outside the Soviet Union. That’s the perfect description of Josef Hofmann, a railway worker in Hamm, Germany, in 1938. Hofmann is ostensibly a man who emigrated to Argentina during the Weimar days. Now, he’s returned, to enjoy the life and future in the New Germany of Adolf Hitler.
That’s Hofmann’s cover story but, in reality, he’s been an agent of the Communist International for 20 years, working in China and the U.S. Moscow has called him to Hamm to get in contact with the remaining members of the banned German Communist Party. Stalin hopes to avoid or, at least, delay war.
Hofmann’s true identity is part of the mystery here. Fans of Downing’s brilliant historical mysteries set in the First World War and Second World War, know how skilfully he weaves fact and fiction. What happens to Hofmann as he encounters a gutsy woman and her son is also part of the story, and his diary, uncovered by the son 50 years later, is a great way of revealing an excellent tale. Downing’s series are terrific but this standalone is one of his best novels so far and paints a believable picture of Germany just before Hitler unleashed catastrophe.
The Guilty Party by Mel McGrath, HarperCollins, 384 pages
Mel McGrath is emerging as a leader in the new crop of British crime writers. Her excellent series, featuring an Inuit detective, has brought her attention, but it’s her latest standalone stories that show just what she can do. Give Me The Child was a bestselling examination of a woman’s desires and the consequences of her choice. The Guilty Party moves ahead from that, but continues the moral lesson. What we do makes us who we are and, try as we might, we cannot change events once they happen.
Four friends are out on a party in London’s Wapping – it’s a fun time, lots of drink, lots of talk. Then, as we read, each one encounters a woman who needs help. Each decides to ignore her and later they learn she was raped. A day later, her body washes up on the banks of the Thames. Just how complicit are they in her death?
McGrath has all her elements in hand. Each of the guilty parties has a secret reason for ignoring the woman’s pleas and one has more secrets than others. But just what are our responsibilities in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the availability of instant info on social media? McGrath takes on all of this in a brainy and suspenseful tale that keeps you reading right to the end.
The Missing Corpse by Jean-Luc Bannalec, translated by Sorcha McDonagh, Minotaur, 330 pages
The French know their romans policiers. They’ve been producing quality tales for more than a century and The Missing Corpse, the fourth in a series, is as clever as French crime fiction gets. I haven’t read the other three Commissaire Dupin books, but I plan to start right away.
The setting is Brittany, which affords Bannalec plenty of stunning scenery and a chance for his slightly grumpy detective to reflect on the region’s eccentricities. Commissaire Georges Dupin has been “promoted” to “Supervising” Commissaire and that means attending a boring seminar he’s avoiding. Fortunately, a dead body surfaces in a local river and Dupin heads for the scene. But by the time he arrives, the body has disappeared, if it was there at all. The only witness, an elderly local actress, is dismissed by the locals as a senile mischief-maker. Dupin isn’t so sure and when he gets a call from the hills of Monts d’Arrée, he’s convinced there’s something evil afoot. The locals may believe in fairies and local devils but murder isn’t on the legend list. Filled with gorgeous scenery, Celtic lore and plenty of clues, this is a great weekend book and a marvellous introduction to the work of Bannalec.
The Better Sister by Alafair Burke, HarperCollins, 320 pages
Alafair Burke started her career in Portland, Ore., where she was a prosecutor. Now she’s teaching law in Manhattan. Very different places and, in her fiction, very different books. But Burke hasn’t left her crusading self behind and The Better Sister is as much a response to #MeToo as any of her other two dozen books.
The sisters are Chloe and Nicky Taylor, both married, at different times, to Adam, a crusading lawyer. Nicky was the “bad” sister, who married Adam, bore his child, Ethan, and then devolved into drink, drugs and promiscuity. Chloe is the better sister, or so she thinks. She made a career for herself in New York broadcasting. When Adam and Nicky’s marriage fell apart, she befriended Adam and mothered Ethan. She sees herself as a very fine person but, as Nicky reminds us: Chloe is no saint. Needless to say, the two sisters are estranged for more than 10 years.
Then Adam is murdered, suspicion falls on Ethan, now 16. Nicky, dry and sober, arrives ready to assist but does the rich and established Chloe need her? Just what went on behind those marital doors and what does Ethan know that he’s hiding so obviously that the police suspect him of murder? This is a terrific novel with a lot of twists. It starts slowly, filling in the history of Nicky and Chloe, but keep reading. Once the plot kicks in, you won’t put it down.
House On Fire by Bonnie Kistler, Atria, 416 pages
I tend to avoid designating books as “women’s” since I know men as well as women read Jodi Picault or Clare Coulter. But there are books with a particularly female bent and House On Fire is one of them. Kistler has created a delightful couple who have a seemingly perfect relationship until it isn’t, and that’s where the tale begins.
Divorce lawyer Leigh Huyett has seen her share of failed marriages and she knows that No. 2 is often just as shaky as No. 1. But she’s had five years with Peter Conley and things seems ideal. They have managed a blended family with five kids and all the appearances of a good life. Then, on their 50th anniversary, it all ends. On an evening out, leaving Pete’s son Kip in charge of her daughter Chrissy, the bad news comes: a car accident. Kip was driving; Chrissy is badly injured,
A day later, Chrissy is dead and Kip is charged with manslaughter. On the eve of his acceptance to Duke University, his brilliant future seems doomed. Then Kip changes his story. He wasn’t driving, Chrissy was. And there’s a witness. As Pete mobilizes family finances and resources to save his son, Leigh is in the unenviable position of mourning her dead child and believing that her husband will keep Chrissy’s killer from justice. This one is suspenseful right to the end.
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