Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand (2012)

Cass Neary Series #2

available dark

After a brief career as a photographer in the 1970’s, in which she produced one cult-classic photo-book, Cass Neary has spent most of the last thirty years doing nothing, unless you count drinking and using, trying halfheartedly recapture her fading talent.

Returning to New York City after a traumatic gig in Maine, the full story can be found in Generation Loss, Cass is back in the city laying low knowing that the police from Maine will come looking for her soon enough. Then two things happened in quick succession: she receives a letter from her first love and a call from an art dealer needing her expertise.

With nothing but a passport and her vintage camera, she hops on a plane to Helsinki, Norway. There she travels to the home of a world-famous photographer and is paid to authenticate a few photos the art dealer wants to purchase. But they are not what she is expecting: the photographs show the murder victims of a serial killer in the moments after their deaths. The artist swears he did not kill the victims, but his secrecy and the amount of money he is seeking for them lead Cass to suspect he is lying.

Unwilling to get involved in how the photos were taken or what it might mean that she has seen them, she collects her fee and leaves. That night, the photographer is murdered. Cass flees to Reykjavik, Iceland thinking that while she is in Northern Europe she will track down the old boyfriend who wrote her recently. She could not have picked a worse place to travel.

Touching down in Reykjavik, Cass is almost immediately caught up in a group of once-hardcore death metal musicians whose interest in the occult practices of ancient Arctic civilizations seems to extend beyond the academic. The people who she meets in Iceland as she tries to find her old boyfriend all seem linked to the underground world of satanism…and they all seem to be dying within days of meeting Cass.

Facing down people and events that she could never have imagined existed, Cass must keep her cool as she tries to extract herself from these fanatics before she is their next sacrifice.


Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand (2007)

Cass Neary Series #1

generation loss

“Generation loss — that’s what happens when you endlessly reproduce a photographic image. You lose authenticity, the quality deteriorates in each subsequent generation that’s copied from the original negative and the original itself decays with time, so that every new image is a more degraded version of what you started with.” 28

In the 1970’s Cass Neary was a young and talented photographer living on the fringes of the New York City punk scene, making a name for herself capturing the decadence and violence that era was famous for. As the punk scene faded, so did Cass’s career and more than thirty years later she is nearing 50 and surviving on drugs, booze, and the minimum wage. Next to no one knows that she was once a rising star in the art world.

She is offered a job on a remote island off the coast of Maine, which she initially refuses, but hastily accepts when she learns she will be visiting a world famous photographer who lives on the island in a now-defunct cult-commune.

Immediately upon arriving in Maine in late November, Cass feels she is out of her depths. The weather is far colder than she is outfitted for, she has a troubling run in with some locals in a bar, and she becomes the last person to see a teenage girl who goes missing the day Cass arrives.

When she reaches the island, things don’t get any better. The photographer she was sent to work with is an alcoholic who hasn’t made art in decades, living with an adult son who can barely contain his disgust at his mother’s drinking. Living among the ruins of the commune are a strange assortment of rugged year-rounders, some who have been their since they were members of the strange nature-worship cult in the 1970s.

When she stumbles across some disturbing yet beautiful photos taken by the cult-leader, she sets out to see if she can find the man who created them. The only problem: constantly being drunk and high keeps getting in her way. When she finally finds the man, she also stumbles into a nightmare thirty years in the making.

Hand has created the beginning of a mystery series that is artful and complex, led by a woman whose hard-partying life style makes her reckless and vulnerable, but no less curious about the mysteries she finds herself part of.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (2019)

dept of sensitive crimes

Upon finishing this quirky little book, I find myself a bit at a loss at how to describe it. It is not a police procedural, although the main characters are police officers investigating crimes; nor it is a simple novel about a man moving through his daily life, but the motivations and experiences of the main character, Ulf Varg, are central to the story. Rather, this novel is about the simple emotions behind even the most complicated decisions: it is about the devastating effects that discrimination can have on a person’s psyche; and about how loneliness and jealousy can make even the most rational people harm others.

Ulf Varg is an investigator in Malmo, Sweden, working alongside four colleagues whom together attempt to solve crimes that are determined to be too “sensitive” for the regular police to piece together. While most criminal acts are straight forward and the perpetrators easy to find (for example: a thief needs money so he robs a bank and the security cameras make him identifiable,) the cases that come to the Sensitive Crimes Unit are murkier.

What may look like a missing person investigation on the surface, is really about the complex desire of a lonely, young woman to feel like she is as lovable as her peers. What appears to be a random stabbing is really about the rage that a man discriminated against since childhood finally allows to boil over. Each act the team investigates requires open-minded examination and non-traditional techniques to solve…and often exposes perpetrators who are conflicted and scared, rather than hardened and dangerous.

McCall Smith has created a main character who is quirky but undeniably decent and upstanding, a man who allows himself to be led and a man who knows to (as Armand Gamache might say) follow the emotions, rather than the clues. Indeed the kindness and humanity of Ulf Varg has led some critics to declare that McCall Smith has created a new genre “Scandi Blanc;” a series of stories that reflect the best intentions and motivations in its characters, rather than the worst.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)

the lost man

The Lost Man is a stand-alone novel by Jane Harper, author of the wonderful Aaron Falk series which includes The Dry and Force of Nature. Our narrator, Nathan Bright, is a rancher on a vast stretch of land in western Queensland, Australia, a place so rugged and dangerous that the people who live there must rely on each in order to survive. Nathan’s isolation is far greater than that of his neighbors, due a rift with a fellow rancher a decade before, and so he lives his days with almost no human interaction and in a fragile mental state.

One day in mid-summer, Nathan is making repairs on his land when he hears over the radio that a body has been found near the boundary line between his land and that of his brother. As fractious as the relationship between the brothers could be, Nathan is still stunned and heart-broken to learn the body is one of his brothers, Cameron.

The shock of his brother’s death is heightened by the suspicious circumstances surrounding it: his body was found miles from shelter or water on one of the hottest days of the year, a mistake no one born in the outback would make.

Nathan must spend the next few weeks living on the family compound, helping with funeral preparations and discussing the future of the family land. Immediately it becomes clear that his brother’s final weeks were fraught with fights among the family members living on the compound; but no one is willing to discuss the specifics.

Unsettled by the obvious lies being told about his brother and the unexplained circumstances of Cameron’s death, Nathan begins to dig into his brother’s secrets and is shocked at the extent of the misdeeds he unearths.

Moody and atmospheric, with a gorgeous sense of place, The Lost Man was riveting picture of life on the fringes of society.

Under My Skin by Lisa Unger

under my skin

Finding Lisa Unger’s books last spring was a delightful surprise: here was an author whom I had never read, writing thrilling and complex books, and who had a stack of older novels I could devour. A book-lovers dream! Under My Skin is her latest novel, and while it departs from the spooky, magical-realism of some of her recent novels, it is still a great read.

One morning almost a year ago, Poppy Lang, awoke to find her husband gone from their bed and police detectives in her lobby, there to tell her that he had been mugged and murdered in the park during a jog. Days later, Poppy disappears for almost a week and returns with no memories what-so-ever of the time she has been gone, and hazy memories of the weeks leading up to her husband’s death.

The twelve months that follow are terrifying and disjointed: consumed with grief, her mind distorted by pills and booze, swaddled by friends and family trying to cushion the blow, wracked with fear and not knowing why. Finally, there is a glimmer of…something. Hope? Memory? Healing?

Poppy and her therapist discuss her emergence from the cocoon that has been her life for the past year. She starts to remember tiny details, things she has forgotten, pieces of information that had been missing until now. A face, a name, the logo of a bar, a fight, a conversation overheard. Problem is, these bits of information are surfacing in nightmares and hallucinations; out of order and not always accurate. Some of it is real, Poppy knows, but which parts she is unsure.

“These events might seem like hallucinations, but they’re more like dreams. The state is called hypnagogia, the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness or between wakefulness and sleep. The sensations are there — be they visual, olfactory, auditory — and are often quite vivid.” 156

Sick to death of not fully being present in her life and finally ready to face the facts of her husband’s murder, whether or not its causes her to spiral out of control again, Poppy ditches the pills and alcohol and starts forcing herself to remember. The well-meaning (and down-right controlling) people in her life attempt to stop her, convinced she will have another breakdown. Without their support, Poppy must strike out on her own, take risks and “invite darkness” into her life to get the information she needs.

What follows is a thrilling, if chaotic, descent into Poppy psyche. She is forced to really examine her marriage in those final months, and collect clues — however scant– that might lead her to places or people that will spark real memories. The more of herself she regains, the more the people around her grow nervous: some fearing she will find out things about her husband best left buried with him; some fearing she will find out who played a role in his death.

“Marriage is a mosaic, comprised of pieces–some broken and jagged, some shiny, some dull, some golden. The pieces don’t matter as much as the whole picture of your life together.” 191

While not as dark and terrifying as some of her other books, Under My Skin was a well-paced thriller with a heroine who was easy to route for getting better and getting answers.


Re-read. Repost from October 7, 2018.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (2018)

the wedding date

I love romance novels and, beginning in middle school and extending to the recent past, the majority of my bedside table reading would fall into this genre. Then, something happened and I stopped reading so many romances. They grew formulaic and indistinguishable from one another; the characters and their problems were all the same. Enter Jasmine Guillory with her fresh, modern voice and her diverse cast of characters to give readers what has sorely been missing from the genre: racial diversity and inclusion.

In The Wedding Date, we meet Alexa and Drew who share an elevator — and a bit of sexual chemistry — that gets stuck during a power outage. They pass the time with flirtatious banter and when the doors open, they are set to part ways. Except Drew makes an outrageous proposal: would Alexa pose as his girlfriend during a weekend wedding to spare him the embarrassment of attending alone? He promises good food and free drinks and to owe her a huge favor in return.

Normally risk-averse and never spontaneous, especially with men, Alexa shocks herself by saying yes. After all, what does she have to lose? She’ll spend a weekend with a sexy doctor and then go back to her regular life. Except Drew is funny and charming, and Alexa finds it hard to keep things causal. The two have a wonderful time and find it far easier then they could have guessed to play the part of besotted lovers.

Drew surprises them both when he suggests they keep seeing each other after the wedding weekend is over. Soon, the two are spending all of their free time together and things begin to heat up.

Alexa tries her best to keep this causal and not to read too much into their relationship, given that Drew has made it very clear that he is not interested in anything other than fun. Drew, usually so good at keeping women at arms-length, is struggling to keep things from getting to serious but finds himself falling hard for Alexa.

A disastrous July 4th party — where Alexa meets not one but three of Drew’s ex-girlfriends — things fall apart. Can the two of them stop hiding behind promises of “causal” and “no strings” and take the next step?

The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager (2018)

Riley Sager, (pseudonym) the author of the twisty and atmospheric novel Final Girls, is back with another thriller that is perfect for summer reading.

the last time i lied2


When she was just thirteen, Emma Davis was sent to an elite sleep-away camp for the daughters of wealthy parents. Out of place from the outset, Emma relies on the older girls in her cabin — Natalie, Allison, and Vivian — to show her the ropes. It is Vivian who truly grabs Emma’s attention: beautiful, confident, always in charge, and unafraid of cruelty. Emma is thrilled to be on Vivian’s good side, despite warnings from other campers and staff to keep her distance from the known trouble-maker. How right they all end up being.

Just a few weeks into summer, after a night of heightened emotions and tense confrontations, the three older girls sneak out of the cabin and do not return…ever. Despite an exhaustive search over several months, none of the girls are seen again.

Tormented the rest of her childhood and into the present, Emma carries the disappearance of the girls with her everywhere, and has spent years trying — unsuccessfully — to make peace with their ghosts.

When she is contacted by the wealthy woman who once ran the camp asking for a meeting, Emma is shocked and deeply concerned: is she finally going to be publicly blamed for not stopping the girls from leaving the cabin? After all, the family that owned the camp were eviscerated by the press and the girls parents and, it was rumored, nearly went bankrupt paying legal fees to defend their name.

What happens is something she could ever has expected. At the meeting, she learns the camp is to reopen for the first time since the disappearances and Emma is invited to come live there for the summer as a art counselor. In an instant, she agrees. If she is ever to find out what really happened, if she is ever to make peace with the ghosts that haunt her, she must return to Camp Nightingale and look for answers.

Back at camp, Emma realizes that many others who were present the summer the girls went missing have also been invited back: old counselors, staff, campers, caretakers, and of course, the members of the family who own the land. All suspects present and accounted for; now all Emma needs to do is dig up the clues the police missed all those years ago and solve the mystery without going missing herself.

Sager’s work has been compared to Ruth Ware (author of The Death of Mrs. Westaway, The Lying Game, and The Woman in Cabin 10) and I think that is an apt comparison. Like Ware, Sager has a wonderful sense of place and plot, but the characters are flimsy and underdeveloped. In particular, the women in the stories are often simpering and weak, even when the story could support a much more dynamic and powerful character. If both authors could give us heroines with a bit more gumption, they would both be writing much better stories.