The Retreat by Sherri Smith (Raincoast, 353 pages, hardcover)
A good novel needs a great opening and The Retreat has it.
A woman takes a deep breath, revelling in her improved core, her flexed joints and her strength – it’s everything you need after a weekend at a wellness retreat. Then she puts her back into it and breaks the neck of her victim. As she walks out of the woods, past all the others she’s killed, she counts the bodies to a rhyme. She is “the last woman standing.”
Who’s dead and who did it are the essence of this terrific novel by Winnipeg’s Sherri Smith. A washed-up child star and a trio of buddies/hangers-on are on a retreat at a ritzy spa. Everyone has things to hide and things to learn and none of it is suitable for a yoga class. Smith lets her story roll out slowly, with plenty of wit and excellent character development even though the women are an unlikeable lot – from Katie, the former child star of her very own detective series, to Ellie-Rose, her mantra-spouting soon-to-be sister-in-law. None of the four women are true grown-ups, although we know someone has a plan for revenge. The question is who and why?
This is the first novel I’ve read by Smith and I found it irresistible after the first page. All that core strength, all that murder.
The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins, 720 pages, paperback)
I love Karin Slaughter’s Sara Linton/Will Trent series. Fans know that Sara has been a wife, a widow and now a live-in partner to a man who’s damaged but not defeated. The pair continue to support each other on cases; Sara as a doctor and coroner and Will as an investigator for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. This story begins as Sara and Will are enduring a family lunch with lots of inferences about marriage. Then the sirens go off and Will and Sara head for a catastrophic accident scene.
The story begins there but leads away to a survivalist compound in Appalachia where Will goes undercover as Sara fights to expose a plot to create an epidemic in Atlanta. Just what the criminals want is hidden until the very end and, as always, Slaughter ties up the plot nicely and leaves us with a promise of things to come in the next instalment.
The Perfect Wife by J.P. Delaney (Ballantine, 512 pages, paperback)
Abbie wakes up one morning with no memory of her past. The man by her side tells her that she was a fine artist, a great mother and an avid surfer. Then she disappeared, presumed dead, maybe murdered. That was Abbie. This Abbie is a cobot – a companion robot – who is identical to the Real Abbie, but with some missing bits: genitalia and a sense of smell. But one thing Cobot Abbie has going for her is that she’s the perfect wife for her husband, Tim Scott. She’s a “miracle of science” fresh from the Silicon Valley lab where he creates all types of artificial intelligence.
Several of the excellent questions the novel raises are: What rights do robots have? What does it mean when the robot begins to question the motives of the creator? Can a machine die? Or grieve? Or inhabit the soul of the person it’s created to replace? As Cobot Abbie begins to unravel the last months and days of Real Abbie’s life, some scary things come to light. For one, Scott was investigated for his wife’s murder, but there was no evidence to back up the charge, or even a body to confirm the death. For another: could Real Abbie be living somewhere off the grid? The information surfacing in Cobot Abbie’s mind can lead to many possible outcomes. There are several twists in this novel and the end is no exception. This is a novel you won’t stop reading so save it for that weekend when you can’t be disturbed.
Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre (Little Brown, 293 pages, paperback)
This complex novel is Brookmyre’s finest work to date and it’s a test for the reader. The central characters, two strong and well-constructed women, are difficult from the outset: They’re unlikeable and harsh, and one has two different names.
The story begins with a death, explained and perfectly planned out, but who is dying? Then, suddenly we are in holiday mode. The Temple family is heading to their villa in Portugal. Father, Max, is a successful retired academic, wife, Celia, is a self-adoring actress. The children are older and married, but there was another holiday 16 years before. The same group, the same plans but a toddler named Niamh was along on that trip and she didn’t return. Sixteen years later, what will be revealed about the life and death of little Niamh Temple?
Fans of Brookmyre’s Ambrose Parry historical novels know that plotting is definitely his forte and this book doesn’t disappoint. (Parry is the pseudonym Brookmyre and his wife, Marisa Haetzman, use for their collaborations.) Clues are revealed and then impressions altered. The reader will find all ideas challenged as the real story emerges. Brookmyre is one of the best of the new British mystery writing crop. If you haven’t already discovered him, this is the perfect book to begin with.
The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre, translated by Stephanie Smee (ECW Press, 192 pages, paperback)
Kudos to ECW for publishing the English language debut of Cayre’s witty novel that won France’s highest award for crime and mystery novels. The Godmother is witty, pithy and distinctively French with an emphasis on character development rather than action although there’s no shortage of that, either.
Patience Portefeux is an underpaid and underappreciated French-Arabic translator for the Ministry of Justice. At 53, she’s got daughters in university and a mother in a nursing home. In short, she’s in the sandwich generation and she needs money for everyone. With no loyalty to her job, she’s plodding along but then a chance comes her way. A major drug supplier is caught on a telephone wiretap. The dealer’s mother wants him saved. Patience trades for a large stash of dope and becomes the Godmother, lifting her spirits and finances to the skies.
Cayre is a first-rate novelist and she doesn’t waste a word in this excellent short novel with dealers, traffickers, cops and quirky Frenchmen all getting their time on the page. Compliments are also due to translator Stephanie Smee who keeps the pace going and seems to get the rhythm of the language in the original. This novel is scheduled to be released as a film titled Mama Weed and starring Isabelle Huppert.
The Last List Of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis (Sourcebooks, 301 pages, paperback)
Ever since Gone With The Wind swept the United States, moonlight and magnolia novels about the South have been hits, and mysteries are no exception. Just put us in a run-down plantation with some quirky characters and you can kill off the entire local population with ease. But writing a good Southern mystery needs more than a setting and a corpse. Bobotis, who has a PhD in literature and teaches creative writing in Colorado, manages to blend setting and character in this terrific debut novel spanning 70 plus years of a very fine family.
In 1929, Bound, S.C., a teenage boy named Quincy Kratt was murdered. The presumed killer, a man named Charlie Watson, disappeared. The family owned the local mercantile stores, making them part of the local gentry, but the crime was never solved. Rosemarie, the younger sister of Quincy also left Bound at the same time. She, too, was a suspect, at least in her sister Judith’s mind.
Seventy years later, Miss Judith Kratt is the last of her line, living in the crumbling family mansion, holding family secrets close to her. Then she receives a note that Rosemarie, is returning. There will finally be some reckoning over that long-ago crime. Miss Judith decides to make a comprehensive list of all the items in the house. Some are antiques, some are junk but each item has meaning and some rekindle her memory of those long-ago days. This is a masterful spin on a Golden Age cozy plot line updated and with excellent characters and a beautifully crafted Southern setting. Bobotis is definitely a writer to watch.
A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Raincoast, 400 pages, paperback)
People keep telling me they’re tired of the tsunami of Scan Noir rolling out of Europe. But, as with all pre-judgements, this can make you miss something special. A Nearly Normal Family, the first novel by Edvardsson translated into English, is a riveting family drama as well as a well-constructed courtroom drama. This is not a reprise of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo plots. The buildup is slow, the characters drive the plot, and you have to take your time reading.
Eighteen-year old Stella, child of a pastor and an attorney, stands accused of murdering a man 15 years older than herself. How did this ordinary girl from an upstanding family end up in court? She seems to be guilty of the crime, but what was the motive? Rape? A love affair? The story is told in three different parts by three different narrators, which gives a 360-degree image of the crime, but each narrator has his or her own view of the family and the crime. This triple view, along with the legal strategies, makes for a real page-turner, and I found the book difficult to put down once I began. The Swedish author’s bio says Edvardssen has written four other novels. Let’s hope the translators are busy getting them into English.
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