Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean: Reading Room Review


As a long-time reader and reviewer, I’ve encountered lots of books receiving buzz and declarations that this book must be read. Well, The Last Thing to Burn lives up to all the hype, and it really must be read. I have a shelf where I put stand-alone books that have impacted my soul, and Will Dean’s The Last Thing to Burn will be going on that shelf, joining the likes of Sena Jeter Naslund’s The Four Spirits, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Lori Lansen’s The Girls, Allen Eskens’ Nothing More Dangerous, Gabriel Zevin’s Elsewhere, Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig, and Alan Brennert’s Molokai. There are more, but what all these books have in common with The Last Thing to Burn is that I saw a truth more clearly than I had before reading them. Some might call them teachable books, but there is nothing didactic about them or about Will Dean’s book. Books like these become a part of who you are from that moment you read them and on. So, I owe Will Dean a debt of gratitude for his story that makes me a more enlightened person, a better person. 

Thanh Dao and her sister leave their parents’ home in Viet Nam for better opportunities in the UK, but the men who had promised a bright new future there lied and stole their lives instead. Thanh has been in her new country for nine years, the last seven married to a man named Lenn and living on an isolated farm in the Fens. Lenn calls his wife Jane and requires she adapt to her new country’s way of life, down to the very food she eats. Jane has no freedom and cannot leave the isolated farm in the English Fenlands that she shares with Lenn. There are cameras everywhere watching her every move, and her captor husband reviews them every night so he can see what she has done while he’s been tending to the farm work. She has the prescribed daily tasks of scrubbing the house clean, cooking the meals, and doing the laundry. There are other demands which are worse than the daily drudgery though. 

The story opens with Jane trying to escape while Lenn is off to town, but with her physical impairments, which Lenn has inflicted, it’s excruciatingly slow and laborious. Lenn returns before she can even clear his property. Lenn’s punishment for Jane is not physical but emotional. Each time she disobeys or rebels, she is required to pick one item from the seventeen personal items she brought with her to the farm. Jane is now down to four items, and this escape attempt costs her the precious possession of her parents’ photograph. She is completely disheartened until a woman named Cynth stops by while Lenn is gone. Cynth is looking to rent a pasture for her horse. While Jane must be careful with the cameras ever recording, she does manage to tell the stranger to come back and talk to her husband about it. Jane holds some hope in the possibility of another meeting, as does the reader.

However, before Jane can plan any more escape attempts, which are physically almost impossible for her, a miracle happens, something she never expected. She becomes pregnant with Lenn’s child, which ties her to the hated cottage for at least a while longer but gives her a new lease on her determination to have a life outside of her prison. Her baby deserves better. So, Jane endures being called her husband’s dead mother’s name, cooking his eggs just the way his mother did, never shutting a door for privacy, taking the horse pills Lenn doles out to her for her physical pain and keeping her doped, and daily scrubbing the cottage clean. She must survive for her baby.

When the baby does arrive, it’s a girl whom Lenn calls Mary, but Jane/Thanh calls Huong when she whispers in her child’s ear. There’s nothing easy about taking care of a baby in primitive conditions, and yet, Jane perseveres, as she works toward building up both their strengths to fight for their freedom. Then, a major complication arrives. Another woman is abducted by Lenn and kept in the cellar, and it’s someone Jane knows. Listening to the suffering from this woman come up through the floorboards will just about undo Jane, and the silences are even worse. Can Jane ignore the needs of another human being to save her baby? There are hard choices ahead and no easy answers. If escape is the goal, what kind of escape can that be?

The Last Thing to Burn is a dark read, no doubt about that, but it is also a story that keeps the protagonist and the reader looking for an end to that darkness, believing that its end is possible. Whether it is possible or not, the book shakes the reader’s core. Will Dean takes readers through the terror of being a captive, both physical and mental, by using Thanh Dao/Jane as narrator of her pain and dehumanization. The Last Thing to Burn is billed as a thriller, and that, too, is certainly an accurate description. I was on the proverbial edge of my seat throughout the book, waiting for Lenn’s control to turn deadly. The suspense level never lets up, always the fear by Jane, and by the reader for Jane, that she will make a misstep leading to her end and/or the end of little Huong, whom Lenn has vowed to kill if Jane tries to escape again.

The book at just 238 pages makes every one of those pages count. Every scene moves the story forward in a well-paced swell to the climax, and the twists will cause readers to gasp. The characters are superbly honed for their parts in this human tragedy of a tale. The devastation of human trafficking is front and center but is the personal story of Thanh Dao through which that issue unfolds and from which the reader discovers the horrors of it. The Last Thing to Burn is a tribute to those who live nightmares and yet strive to survive for a better life, a life with dignity, away from cruelty and abuse. Monsters exist, but so does endurance in the face of evil, and sometimes you have to be your own hero. Well done, Will Dean.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton: Reading Room Review


"We were inseparable until the day she killed my sons."

Little Black Lies is one of Sharon Bolton's best books throughout all but the last twist. I hesitate to say that, because first, I don't want to spoil it, and second, because the story is so worth reading. This is not a negative review. I just can't honestly ignore the one aspect of it that made it less than flawless for me. 

Divided into three parts for each of the main characters, it's an emotional, suspenseful tale that completely captivated me. The isolation of the Falkland Islands setting brilliantly coincides with the mental isolations of Catrin, Rachel, and Callum. The few days leading up to the third anniversary date of the tragedy that will always connect them and the few days after that date is the focus of the action, with flashes back to what brought them together and the after-effects of the day when Catrin's two children died as a result of her best friend Rachel's neglect. 

With a young boy from a visiting cruise boat gone missing on the island, there is a frantic search in which all three characters are involved. That there have been two other boys, local boys, missing in the past three years is a fact never far from the islanders' minds. But, it's the next child's disappearance that brings the past tragedy colliding with the present. Betrayal, heartbreak, guilt, regret, and revenge fill the hearts and minds of the three people whose lives have been shattered. What one character hoped would be the anniversary year to end the pain becomes a search for the lost and a desperate grasp for redemption.

This review is a bit different than what I usually do. I've given more of an essence of the book instead of an outlay of the action and opening and closing remarks. I think readers will appreciate discovering for themselves the steps leading to the unexpected ending, an ending with which I'm still grappling, but I'm hopeful I will come to terms with it in view of the amazing book preceding it.

Well worth a mention, in addition to the crux of the novel, is the setting of the Falkland Islands as a perfect setting for the story. Bolton's curtailed descriptions of the Falklands' cultural, physical, and historical attributes play beautifully into the telling of a tragedy, and the flashbacks from Callum of the British and Argentinian war over the islands twelve years prior give that bloody conflict its due.  Also, Catrin's work in conservation after her grandfather's involvement in whaling in a bloody conflict of another type reveals much about the island's survival and its inhabitants. 

I highly recommend this read with only the caveat of my personal distaste for an ending that seemed abruptly tacked on, an unsubstantiated resolution .

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Ghost in the Garden (Justice Jones #3) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review


It’s book number three in the Justice Jones Mysteries series by Elly Griffiths, and I couldn’t be more pleased with this continuing collection of clever mysteries. When I describe the series to others, I include the effect each book has had on me, that of returning to my youthful delight of first falling in love with mysteries. The elements of true detection and perseverance takes the reader on an adventure where the suspense never loses its edge. These are stories that may be categorized as children’s mysteries, but they are far too good to give over completely to the young sleuth fans. I buy two copies of each book, one for my granddaughter and one for me. 

In The Ghost in the Garden, Justice is thirteen and returning for her third term at Highbury Academy for Girls, and this time she’s actually looking forward to it. Seeing her best friends Stella and Dorothy has her excited, but it won’t be smooth sailing with her besties, as a new girl has joined the Barnowls dormy. Letitia Blackstock is truly one of the daughters of gentlefolk the school caters to, as her parents are extremely wealthy. Letitia takes full advantage of her treasured position at the school, not caring much for rules and seemingly getting away with it by the staff. Letitia has latched onto Justice as a friend, and both Stella, a fellow Barnowl, and Dorothy, a maid, aren’t too happy about Letitia butting into their close trio. Justice herself is unsure how to handle Letitia, and she doesn’t want to lose her closeness with Stella and Dorothy, but the Headmistress Miss de Vere asks Justice to help Letitia acclimate to the school. Dorothy is Justice’s enthusiastic partner in solving mysteries at Highbury, and Stella is her less enthusiastic but still willing other partner in following the trail of evidence. They really don’t need someone meddling in their business. 

The one broken rule you can depend on in Justice’s time at Highbury is not leaving your dormy after lights out. Justice does her best clue searching at night, slinking around the large old house, sometimes with Dorothy, sometimes with Stella, and often by herself. She has discovered a couple of ways to go outside to the grounds of the house at night, and it’s just as atmospheric as you think it might be, reading about Justice’s visits to the old tower or the empty disused swimming pool. Justice has nerves of steel and a confidence gained from reading her late mother’s detective books. The head mistress, Miss Delores de Vere, despairs of Justice’s boldness in pursuing the mysteries that seem so at home at Highbury. With Justice’s father Herbert, who is a busy London Barrister, having an apparently long standing friendship (something Justice still doesn’t understand) with Miss de Vere, Justice always manages to avoid being expelled. 

After spending the Half Holiday with Letitia at her family’s nearby estate, Letitia’s mother has sent the two girls back to school with an enormous amount of food treats. As is the tradition goody baskets from home are shared with the whole dormy, so the Barnowls plan their feast. Letitia, who seems to like breaking rules as much as Justice, suggests they take their bounty to the Haunted Tower on the grounds at midnight, but practical Stella reminds them it will be locked. Justice comes up with the barn next to the ice house as an acceptable location, acceptable only because the ghost of Grace Highbury is said to walk in the gardens there. So, they sneak out to the barn that night and after gorging themselves on cakes and sandwiches, they hear a scream and see a ghostly figure who looks like a young girl. Their response is to run for the house and get back to their room. But, as they recover from the excitement, they notice Letitia is missing. Thus begins Justice’s new mystery challenge to solve. As usual, it has some thrilling twists and a surprising resolution.

This series has a trifecta of perfect elements coming together. The time setting for mystery/crime couldn’t be more perfect for highlighting pure detecting, without use of fancy or electronic devices. The time period is 1937, so Justice and her sleuthing team must depend on the little grey cells that Hercule Poirot so often refers to in his work. There are no cell phone distractions or Google or 911 (999 in the UK). The geographic setting is perfect for mystery, too, as Highbury House, School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, is located on the edges of the Romney Marsh area of southeast England, a remote, isolated setting. A bad storm, rain or snow, can completely cut the school off from the rest of the world. And, Highbury House itself seems made for mystery, with its turrets and tunnels and cellars and a new hidden feature in this book, a priest hole. The character of Justice is yet another brilliant stroke of genius on the author’s part. Justice, having grown up until age eleven with a mother who wrote mystery novels and a father who is involved in murder trials, has an advantage in gearing her thinking toward clues and evidence. But, she also seems just naturally inclined in working out puzzling situations. She keeps a journal of clues and evidence and suspects and observations. I like that the time period requires her to rely on herself as the resource, to dig for clues and do research from scratch, so to speak. So, time setting, physical setting, and character form an impressive trio of elements collaborating to support an always exceptional story. And, I must give kudos to the covers for this series for disproving the old adage you can’t tell a book by its cover. Well, in this series, yes, you can. They are truly works of art that are matched inside by a work-of-art story.

It seems I can’t close a review of anything written by Elly Griffiths without a mention of how masterful she is in creating characters, both main and supporting. Besides the main character and regular amazing cast, the author always includes new characters who are fascinating and integral to the plot. I have long ago pronounced Elly Griffiths as Queen of Character Creation. Of course, these clever characters are lucky to be woven into a story worthy of them, plotted by a person born to tell stories. And, don’t forget the Ruth Galloway series, the Brighton (Stephens and Mephisto) series, and the stand-alones by Elly Griffiths. To find an author who is so talented and so versatile is truly one of my most treasured reading discoveries. Enjoy them all.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Body Zoo (Sin City Investigations #3) by J.D. Allen: Reading Room Review


“Don’t grow roots, girl. Roots get you stuck. And stuck gets you dead.”

I do so love being gobsmacked by a book. Body Zoo by J.D. Allen obligingly did just that. I went into this third Jim Bean book without having read the first two, so I was clueless as to what to expect. What I got was a gripping story that kept its pedal to the metal and gave me one hell of a ride. The pacing was right on the mark, no dragging or flying too fast. Add to an exquisitely twisty storyline the cast of dynamic characters who leap into your mind page by fascinating page, and the reader is solidly hooked. The main character of Jim Bean and his support crew are unerringly a work of perfection, but the author doesn’t stop there with her ability to character dazzle you. The bad guys, oh those bad guys, are a work of art, too.

Now, here is the outstanding bonus to reading Body Zoo. I mentioned that I hadn’t read the previous two Jim Bean books, 19 Souls and Skin Game (officially called the Sin City Investigations series). The bonus is that readers can read Body Zoo like a stand-alone and be completely in the loop of Jim Bean’s world. However, I should warn you, a good kind of warning, that reading Body Zoo is going to have you scrambling to buy from your favorite bookstore or borrow from your library the first two books. Although I want to kick myself for not having started reading the series when it started, it’s a great feeling to know there’s more before (and a new one later this year). 

Jim Bean is a private investigator who prefers to keep his life simple. He does not achieve this goal, except financially. His friends and cohorts in investigations include his old friend, and by old I mean 70 years old, Ely, who likes his weed and knows his technology. His other male friend is Oscar, who is a bounty hunter and always a good person to have on your side. The third all-star player is Sandy, a college student who has pretty much whipped all three men into submission. Her intuitive skills are as sharp as her research skills, making her an invaluable asset to Jim. And, an outsider part of the gang is LVPD Detective Noah Miller, a reluctant resource for official information. This whole ensemble cast works like a well-oiled machine in helping to make Las Vegas a little less mired in its reputation for danger. Of course, anything can happen in Vegas, and the bizarre is natural to its habitat, so Jim Bean and his posse and readers can always expect the unexpected. 

As I said, Jim thinks he wants to keep things simple, but his investigation for an insurance company concerning a burnt mobile home gets him sniffing out secrets on his first walk-through of the burned-out unit. A dead cat that had obviously been hiding in the bathroom, the lack of a personal touch in the trailer, and sparseness of wardrobe all set off an alarm in Jim’s mind about the young woman who lived in the trailer and now can’t be found. Emilee Beck has vanished, and Jim wants to know why and to where. The fire was no doubt started by someone, but Emilee Beck was not that someone. Jim’s work for the insurance company is straight forward, but he can’t let go of the ghostly disappearance. 

Luckily, there is a connection of some importance to a local big business venture in the Las Vegas area, Ward’s Outdoor Adventures, an outdoor adventure empire on the road to Lake Mead. The young heir to this empire, A.J. Ward, is discovered by Jim’s detective friend Miller to be the boyfriend of Emilee. Acting on his curiosity and loosely tying it to the matter of the fire at Emilee’s trailer, Jim goes to Ward’s Outdoor Adventures compound to question A.J about Emilee’s whereabouts. Jim finds A.J. working in the taxidermy shop in the business compound, and while at the taxidermy shop, Jim observes and helps out a bit with a taxidermy project A.J. and the main taxidermy artist Travis are working on. Jim learns of Calvin Ward, who runs the whole show and who is in the medical supply business as well. Calvin’s involvement with that business includes supplying medical teaching facilities with human parts and torsos, a perfectly legal business, with the dead bodies coming from those unclaimed from funeral homes and other places where the dead have donated their bodies to science. It’s a creepy business, and Jim soon learns that Calvin is one creepy man.

Soon after Jim’s interview with A.J., the young man also goes missing, and Jim is called on by A.J.’s father Richard to find his wayward son. It is apparent, when Jim meets with the Ward brothers, that Calvin is clearly in charge, and Richard is the silent partner due to early dementia and physical limitations. The Ward family outdoor business owns a large amount of land in Utah that is used for guided hunting excursions as part of their business. The thinking is that A.J. might be hiding out there and the brothers are concerned it involves Emilee. So, Jim gets to indulge his search for the missing young woman in his pursuit of the young man. 

Emilee has, with some unfriendly urging from others, left Las Vegas and the small community of Henderson and has temporarily landed in the small town of Sparks to make some quick cash and come up with a plan for moving on. She isn’t worried about the fire or being blamed for it. Emilee has much darker worries that compel her to keep looking over her shoulder. She trusts no one, but she has let her guard down by staying too long in Henderson and getting to know a few people, like A.J. He keeps texting her, telling her he can help her, but she’s only completely trusted one other person in her life, and that person is long dead. With Emilee’s past closing in on her, options are quickly disappearing. The story explodes into a cat and mouse game with more than one cat and mouse. There are deep, dark secrets that will drop like a ton of bricks into Jim Bean's search. The danger for all is at a fever pitch, and there is no turning back from a collision of wits, power, and depravity. You might think it’s over before it is. The intensity of the chase will keep readers on the edge of their seats, and there is no escaping the full-fledged impact of brutality. 

I should note that when I started reading Body Zoo, I was only going to take a peek, as I had a reading schedule for reviews I was already trying to keep under control. Well, there is no peeking at this book. Once the reader starts it, the reader must follow it to the end. J.D. Allen is a master crafts-person of the art of writing, and thankfully she shares her knowledge by teaching classes about some of its most crucial elements. From suspenseful, perfectly paced plot to great characters to dialogue that is always on point and contains great wit, this author shines in every aspect of what makes a story unforgettable. Reading this book was an opportunity to see how an artist deftly combines elements to create a successful work and how there’s nothing better than a story well told.