Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs by Aimee Hix: Reading Room Review

Sometimes when reviewing a book, a single word speaks to me that encompasses what stands out about said book. With Aimee Hix's Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs, my mind goes to the word "solid." Everything about Aimee's writing, with her debut Willa Pennington book What Doesn't Kill You and now with the second book in that series, is a solid accomplishment. The story, the characters, the flow, the resolution are all deftly developed without holes or soft spots. Solid. Of course, I can easily add the descriptions of thrilling, suspenseful, engaging, and well-paced. Willa is a character who is evolving both in her personal issues and in her romantic relationship, and she takes both on in the same way she does bad guys, full force. Her strong character drives the action of the story, kicking ass and taking names as she goes. However, Hix has infused Willa with intense feelings for love and for those she loves, which keeps her from becoming a cold kickass. If Willa drives the story, her feelings for her loved ones and her desire for justice drive her. Being an apprentice Private Investigator to her father, she stays especially close to her family. I advise readers to begin with the first book in this series because some of the discussions and actions in this book stem from the story in book one. And, you don't want to miss meeting Willa Pennington in her first appearance, as it's way too good to miss.

Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs begins some months after Willa's physical ordeal in the first book, and her training with her friend Adam at his dojo, in conjunction with some emotional therapy has helped put her back on track, mostly, except for the nightmares. She and boyfriend ATF agent Seth Anderson are having a bit of a rough spot due to an unsettling secret from Seth's parents that sends him into a spin. Of course, Willa and Seth both being on the stubborn side doesn't help. When Seth leaves town for training, Willa's former boss, Detective Jan Boyd, on the police force contacts her with some work that will occupy her time and mind. Jan wants Willa to be a consultant for the police in looking at a cold case, which was Jan's first homicide case and remains unsolved. The case, seventeen years old, involved the death of a young woman home from break during her freshman year of college. With few suspects possible and evidence minimal, Willa agreed to give her fresh set of eyes and thoughts to it, hoping there could be some justice at last for a life snuffed out too soon.

Before Willa gets too deeply into reviewing scene-of-the-crime photos and information and re-interviewing those connected to the victim, another call for help comes in. Aja is a teenager who Willa met at the dojo's and had tried to befriend, giving her a card with her number if Aja ever needed it. Aja needs it, and she calls Willa for assistance in a series of stalkings by an ex-boyfriend. Aja is the quintessential poor little rich girl, whose parents have left her alone in a large house while they are off traveling the world. The stalking by the ex has gotten scary, and Willa swoops in to not only aid Aja with that, but she ends up taking her to the Pennington home to receive expert nurturing from mother Nancy. With Willa's brother Ben going to the same high school as Aja, it turns out to be a good fit, and Aja is rejuvenated by a "normal" family atmosphere. But, her problems with her ex and her ex's associates grows more and more dangerous. Willa must investigate Aja's ex, Damien, and his growing dependency on steroids in the violence he has shown. As often happens, the visible problem with Damien is just the tip of the ice berg. Willa will once again be heading into a nest of vipers.

Author Aimee Hix gives the reader two story lines to follow, and while they may appear to be unrelated, it is the way a private investigator works, handling multiple cases at a time. It gives a great opportunity to see Willa's thinking and decision making processes at full tilt, and it shows her dedication to justice being served, no matter how late. The character of Jan Boyd, with whom Willa collaborates on the cold case, is one I'm happy to see included, and I hope she continues to appear in the series. The current fallout from a stalker's actions against his ex-girlfriend keeps readers in the bosom of Willa's family and revealing more about Willa's relationships there. You would be hard pressed to find a reader who doesn't love Willa's family. Her younger brother Ben is not just a great guy either, as he is a technology genius and finds his way into Willa's investigations as aiding in that area. Even the ATF is impressed with Ben. So, readers get an intense story, with lots of physical action, but they also get a character, Willa, whose sharp edges are kept softened with compassion and the love of her family.  She may go her own way during an investigation, but she's never alone.

I received an advanced reader's copy of this book, and I'm happy to give my honest opinion that Aimee Hix has sailed through her second novel with flying colors.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Wrong Boy by Cathy Ace: Reading Room Review

Since author Cathy Ace is responsible for my fascination with Wales, with her Wise Enquiries Agency series and her Cait Morgan series and her many FB posts about her home country of Wales, I was excited to receive an ARC for The Wrong Boy.  This standalone novel (or maybe not standalone) is arriving with lots of great buzz, and I can confirm that it is everything the mystery/crime world is anticipating and more.  The setting of the small coastal village Rhosddraig in southern Wales with its ancient stone formations and the Dragon's Back island twisting into the sea comes alive for readers under the masterful writing of Ace.  The author makes it easy to become immersed in the Welsh culture of this village, which is both charming and sinister.  I'm certain that sense of place will be high on readers' list of what makes this book so special. 

Cathy Ace categorizes The Wrong Boy as a "psychological suspense thriller," and there is no doubt that it is that.  Her finesse at building from the roots of village character life to a the chilling and thrilling story of a family's secrets tearing the village apart is the stuff of great storytelling.   Metaphorically, it is the ocean tide, coming in and going out, and with each new appearance on the shore, there are new clues as to what lies hidden in its depths.  That there are twists and turns to keep the reader guessing the outcome is a reading experience of pure joy, and not coming close to what the final truth is only adds to the enjoyment. 

What brings us to the picturesque village of Rhosddraig and eventually to The Dragon Head's Pub, where three generations of women reside in the misery of their secrets, is the discovery of bones, recent bones, on the hilltop where the derelict RAF listening station stand.  DI Evan Glover, two days away from retirement, is called on from Swansea to visit the site and determine if those bones are talking.  Glover and his able assistant, DS Liz Stanley, find an unusual pile of determined destruction in the smashed skull with no teeth and charred bones, which are covered by stones in a cairn-like structure.  With reports of a fire being seen emanating its glow from that site on a recent November night, DI Glover knows that this investigation will be a lengthy one and will last well beyond his retirement.  However, his involvement won't end, as the boy who is eventually accused seems to be "wrong," and Glover's sense of justice won't allow him to put it aside. 

The Dragon Head's Pub is the village gathering spot for gossip and a pint, and its proprietor is Nan Jones, an elderly woman made of steel and spite.  Her daughter, Helen, and Helen's daughter, Sadie, also reside and work at the pub, Helen being full-time and Sadie working after school.  Sadie is in love with the accused boy, Aled Beynon, and has kept her relationship with him secret from everyone, including her mother and grandmother.  Nan, Helen, and Sadie have tumultuous relations among themselves, and each one holds secrets from the others that are revealed in their narratives that Ace has divided the book into.  Nan is a particularly nasty piece of work, always critical of her daughter, unimpressed by her granddaughter, and possessing a vicious tongue towards those with whom she has quarrels in the village.  In spite of Nan's disgruntled nature, their pub is a popular spot, and it becomes even more so with a murder to solve.

The pace of the story is one of the great realistic aspects of it, as the investigation and build-up of the drama evolves over a period of months.  From identifying the bearer of the bones to uncovering village connections to him is a time-consuming process, and while this story isn't a police procedural, it does give credence to the importance of it and allows the reader to see some of what is involved.   And while the process is taking place, we are gaining insight into the main characters of this tale.  Through the settling into retirement for Evan and Betty to the running of a busy pub, characters are revealed in their basic nature and desires.  But, all the while suspense is building as more knowledge about the victim and suspect are uncovered.  It is quite possible that you will stay up half the night reading to the end, because, well, it's that grand of a journey and finale. 

The format for telling the story is through the author giving each main character a voice, where they present their perspectives and knowledge.  Retired DI Evan Glover and his wife Betty, who we learn has a connection to the main players, too, are my favorites.  They are genuinely a loving couple who support each other's interests and together prove to be an astute detecting team.  The three females of The Dragon's Head are each given their narrative voices, too, with Nan, Helen, and Sadie showing the depth of deceit and horror of the lies upon which their lives are built.  Through the eyes of these five characters we get to know others in their lives and crucial to the story line.  And, as it is a psychological thriller, we should be aware that their views are not always reliable, either by choice or ignorance.  Like the fog the villagers call the Dragon's Breath, the path is not always clear.  As the end nears and the fog clears, my jaw dropped in surprise, and I consider Cathy Ace's final twist and disclosure one of the best I've ever had the pleasure to be gobsmacked by.

As I mentioned in the beginning of my review, I received an Advanced Reader Copy of The Wrong Boy, and I can only add to my honest review that this is a book sure to be up for awards and one you don't want to miss.