Blue Monday by Nicci French (2011)

Book #1 in the Frieda Klein Series

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Frieda Klein is a gifted psychoanalyst living in London seeing patients in her private practice and in a free clinic. She is presented to readers in very small doses, with the vast majority of her thoughts, feelings, and past kept from us as the story unfolds. This novel, it seems, is not the time to share Frieda’s story, but rather to share Alan Decker’s.

Alan Decker is a patient that is thrust upon Frieda when a colleague of hers finds himself in the midst of his own mental crisis. Displeased to have to take on a client without warning, and knowing she must tread carefully because Alan Decker is a volatile man who was deeply hurt by her fellow doctor negligence, she nonetheless agrees to see him.

Alan is a man whose life has been suddenly controlled by crippling anxiety attacks, mood swings, and terrifying mental images. He is obsessed with becoming a father, which Frieda originally assumes is related to the stress that he and his wife are under trying to conceive. Quickly though she realizes that his obsession is not with becoming a father generally, but with becoming the father on one, very specific, five-year-old boy. Alan has visions of a boy that are crystal clear: what he looks like, what toys he favors, his personality and his exact age: five and a half.

The clarity of these visions startles Frieda, but it is not until a small boy who fits the exact description of Alan’s yearned-for son goes missing from his primary school, that she becomes alarmed. Tormented by thoughts that Alan may have taken the boy, Frieda goes to the police.

Frazzled and under enormous pressure to find the missing boy, the lead detective on the case, Karlsson, lashes out of Frieda for bringing him these unsubstantiated claims about Alan. He is on the verge of throwing her out when she mentions that Alan had a similar “attack” 22 years earlier, but that time, Frieda tells Karlsson, he had been obsessed with being the father of a five-year-old girl.

This stops Karlsson in his tracks. The only case in all of London that police analysts have linked to the missing boy was a 22-year-old cold case of a missing girl named Joanna. Although largely unsure how Alan’s visions, Frieda notes, the cold case and the missing boy all fit together, Karlsson feels convinced they connect and are currently his only lead. He makes an agreement with Frieda, if he investigates Alan, would she be willing to analyze Joanna’s sister — Rose, now 30 — who was with the little girl when she went missing, to see if a repressed memory of the abduction is lingering in her subconscious.

Everything about this agreement is unsettling to Frieda, the missing boy, Alan, and the non-traditional therapy with Rose, but she agrees with Karlsson; there really seems to be something connecting these people and events and she cannot turn her back.





The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018)

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Toby Hennessy is a lucky man, even he would freely admit to it. The first 28 years of his life had been trauma (and drama) free. He grew up in a loving family that happened to have plenty of money to help ease his way through life. He was educated, well-employed, and in love with a wonderful woman. In fact, things had always gone so smoothly for Toby, that he often found he could bend the rules — just a bit, here and there — without consequences. Until, of course, his luck changed.

In short order, Toby intentionally defrauds his employer and is caught. Then, he is brutally attacked and left for dead inside his Dublin apartment. When he wakes, life as he has known it is over.

The attack severely injured Toby’s brain, leaving him partially paralyzed, unable to talk without slurring, and nearly incapable of  processing information or making decisions. Additionally, he is suffering from PTSD and crippling anxiety caused by knowing that the men who attacked him have not been caught by the police. After weeks of care, Toby leaves the hospital hardly recognizable to his family and friends.

When months pass and his recovery is stalling out and his mental health deteriorating quickly, Toby begins to worry that he may not be able to survive the world on his own. Then, a call from a cousin changes everything.

Their beloved Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer and needs someone to live with him and help care for him in his final months. The family wants Toby to move to Hugo’s large ancestral manor house outside of the city to become his Uncle’s companion.

Toby initially refuses, certain that his inability to care for himself precludes him from caring for Hugo. Once persuaded that he was the only one for the job, he agrees. Although the change is grueling: new routines, larger house and grounds to maneuver, new things to learn and try to remember, Toby finds himself relaxing for the first time since the attack.

Being back in the beloved Ivy House with a favorite uncle is healing in ways he never expected. Both men are struggling to walk, talk, and remember, but together they create simple and calm routines that suit them both. Away from the city, Toby’s fears about crime diminish and having to care for his uncle keeps the worst of his anxieties at bay.

Toby is — almost, almost — lulled into complacency once again. He feels that this new life might be manageable and he might just recover after all. Everything bad that could happen, has, he believes. Things can only improve. Of course, he is wrong again.

When the remains of a missing person are found in the gardens at Ivy House, the entire family is thrown into chaos. No one, more than Toby; whose fragile mental state, shoddy memory, and physical limitations grow worse as the police investigation unfolds.

Slowly, connections between Toby’s past, his attack in the summer, the body begin to form. Is it possible that the robbery on his apartment was not random? Could the body be connected to something Toby did as a younger man; one of those pranks he brushed off as harmless? Most importantly, can the damaged, fragile Toby handle the new nightmares that were coming his way?

Tana French is a wonderful author, but one whose work I do not always connect with. (I love her book The Likeness, reviewed here ). This book, although slow to start, is worth sticking with through the twists and turns. (Be warned: some of her “how I did it” speeches are long-winded.) Her flawed, damaged main character adds a layer of complexity to the story and the setting and atmosphere — the crumbling manor house, the start of chilly Autumn — are spot on. Enjoy!

Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich (2009)

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Stephanie Plum series #14.5 (an in between the novels, novel)

Just in time for Halloween, I packed my battered paperback copy of Plum Spooky to read on vacation. I am a unabashed fan of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels: even though the are anti-intellectual, irreverent, and often down-right ridiculous, I cannot resist reading (and re-reading) them. They are always great fun!

In Plum Spooky, the largely inept bounty hunter and trouble-magnet Stephanie Plum is back for more hilarious attempts at bringing Trenton, New Jersey’s low-rent criminals to justice. This Halloween, however, things are more complicated than usual. Along with her usual side-kicks — a prostitute turned file clerk, an Army Ranger turned security expert, and her sassy grandma — this time Stephanie is paired up with Diesel, a mysterious (and possibly magical) man who needs her help to find out exactly what is happening in the Jersey Pine Barrens. Oh, Stephanie and Diesel bring a mischievous monkey along with him, just to keep things interesting.

Reluctant to get involved in a wackier-than-usual situation, Stephanie finds that she cannot resist helping solve this extra spooky mystery. It doesn’t hurt the Diesel is super sexy and definitely interested in Stephanie. The rag-tag team of misfits heads into the autumn woods determined to solve whether the Pine Barrens really are haunted once and for all…and hilarity ensues.


Vox by Christina Dalcher (2018)


In this chilling dystopia, women have become prisoners under the complete control of the all white, male, conservative Christian government. During the years before the story begins, women’s immoralities have been found to be the cause of all societal ills. To counteract the decline of “purity” in American culture, limits have been put on women. First they rights to control their own medical care is rescinded; then their right to control their money; then their right to work, and finally their right to speak or read words of any kind. They are be to silent, humble, pure, and live in service to their husbands, sons, God, and government. Those who refuse are sent to work camps…or worse.

Once a prominent academic researcher, now Dr. Jean McClellan is living a rage-filled existence, albeit a silent one. Confined to her home, she is under surveillance around the clock by electronics and the men in her community, lest she forget her place and speak or read a single word. With no work allowed, all forms of non-church-approved entertainment banned, and no where to travel too, she finds herself losing her mind.

As if the torture of her imprisonment were not maddening enough, she must also watch her young daughter’s life be stripped of freedom and given over to the church. But not her three sons, though; being born male has granted them the right to read, learn, speak, and come and go as they please. Her disgust with the inequities within her own household, as well as across the country, is growing exponentially each day.

Then, the government comes calling for Dr. McClellan. Not to imprison her (not yet, anyway) but to demand the she resume her medical research to help the president heal his brother. After she initially refuses to help the man who has made being a woman in America a crime, she is tortured into agreeing. Before resuming her work, she demands that the ban on speaking and reading be lifted from her and her daughter.

Her time is short, Jean knows, to be able to read, speak, and work. Now she needs to figure out how she can escape before the government figures out what she’s planning.

Throughout the reading, I was struck by the similarities this novel has with Margaret Atwood science-fiction masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale: the traitorous women who enable their own imprisonment, the once well-meaning men who sympathize but do nothing else, the constant surveillance and the demand for purity among women. A great story that was unsettling and infuriating, in part because of how easily this story of science fiction could become a reality given today’s political climate.

Under My Skin by Lisa Unger (2018)

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 no 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 still 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. Great reading for Halloween!

Leverage In Death by JD Robb (2018)

Book #47, Eve Dallas In Death Series (Several of which are reviewed in this site, search tag “Nora Roberts” to see them all.)

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When a bomb is detonated during a high-stakes business meeting, Eve Dallas and her partner Peabody respond, assuming that a disgruntled and vengeful employee has targeted his bosses. The explosion killed twelve, injured many others, and appeared to have been work of a company VP. A closer look into the murder leads the two detectives to the suspect’s home, where his wife and daughter have been kept captive for days. These two witnesses tell a much different story from the one the police assumed to be the case.

This was not the work of a man bent on killing his co-workers, but rather a man who was himself a victim. He exploded the bomb only after being forced to watch his beloved wife and daughter beaten for days on end until he had agreed to carry out the bombing. The wife and daughter, along with some bombing survivors, give Eve and Peabody key pieces of information that help the two women begin to see the bigger picture.

Two men targeted the victims and used the husband to blow up the office a valuable company, kill their CEOs and then — in the chaos that followed — buy up valuable stock and make millions when the stock prices recovered. The detectives are making slow progress on the case when, just days later, another almost identical bombing occurs.

The second bombing targeted an up-and-coming artist and his art work, killing six more people and (it is soon learned) causing the value of his remaining art pieces to skyrocket in value.

Now it is clear that the two masterminds of the bombings are ruthless and greedy terrorists willing to kill as many people as they like, all while cashing in on illegal gambling schemes. Or that is their plan anyway, but Eve Dallas and her team are not going to stop until the men are in jail and their money seized.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)

Book #4 in the Cormoran Strike Series (Reviews here for Book #1 and #3 )

Note: While I try very, very hard not to give spoilers about the other books in this series in this post, I was unable to 100% succeeded. If you have not read the previous three books, please go back and do so, and then proceed. They are absolutely worth it, being four of the best mystery fiction books to have been written in the past decade.

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At last, Robin Ellacort and Cormoran Strike are back for their fourth adventure in Lethal White. Across the nearly 700-pages of the book, our two private investigators will link several seemingly unconnected events — the murder of a child, a Cabinet Minister being blackmailed, a communist activist/petty criminal’s activities, powerful men sexually harassing young workers, the vicious infighting of a once-wealthy family — in order to solve not only the crimes their clients have tasked them with, but also all of the intertwined mysteries that appear along the way.

This detective work is, of course, complicated and confused by the emotional journey Robin and Strike are on in the wake of the disastrous and violent work required to catch a serial killer in Career of Evil (reviewed ) That case not only left them both with physical scars, but with mental ones as well, particularly Robin for whom the case forced her to face some of the darkest times of her past. Furthermore, the two had severed their professional relationship and their friendship over disagreements in how to handle the victims in that case. Now the two are delicately rebuilding — not always successfully — their working partnership in the wake of that dramatic ending.

Additionally, the once-close friendship between Robin and Strike has cooled following Robin’s marriage to Matthew Cunliffe. Seeing her new status as married as a potential handicap, Strike has intentionally (without Robin’s knowledge) been manipulating her schedules and duties to keep her from the firm’s more risky cases. The more Strike pulls back, the further cast out Robin feels, increasing her anxiety that she may not be as valuable a partner as she had thought. Given that her work with Strike is among the most valuable aspects of her life, that more he pushes her away, the faster her mental health deteriorates.

Into that mix of emotion and miscommunication, things said and unsaid, come two unconnected visitors: a homeless, schizophrenic young man who insists he has witnessed a murder of the child, and England’s Minister of Culture.

The young man, Billy, tells Strike the details — disjointed and unclear — of witnessing the strangulation and burial of a young girl near his Oxfordshire hometown. Unstable and terrifying, the young man’s call for help in finding the murderer is complicated by his mental state and his subsequent disappearance. Billy flees the office but his story sticks with Strike, who decides to use some of the firm’s new staff to look into the claims made by the young man.

Simultaneously, England’s Minister of Culture calls for a meeting and hires Strike to stop two men who are black-mailing him: one asking for money and and the other calling for his resignation from office. Refusing to tell Robin nor Strike the crimes he is being blackmailed for, the Minister only gives them the names of two men who are after him and asks that the firm unearth enough evidence of blackmailers own misdeeds to quiet them. One man accused of blackmail is the husband of another Minister with a personal vendetta. The other one is none other than the older brother of Billy, the mentally ill visitor Strike has had just a few days earlier.

The circumstances are too linked to be passed off as coincidence and soon the entire firm is engaged in tracking all four men — Billy, the Minister, Billy’s brother Jimmy, and the other politician involved in the blackmail — and gathering evidence of all of their activities.

As the story unfolds, the connections between these four men grow stronger and stranger, their lives overlapping in — at first — unconnected ways. But slowly, slowly a picture emerges of the group, how they fit together, and what crime (or crimes) they are all, individually and together, trying to prevent the world from discovering. Complicating the story are other characters, many of whom have their own agendas for keeping secrets for these four men: some out of love, others out of fear, and still more for whom it is profitable to help hide secrets.

An astonishingly complex web connects all of the people Robin and Strike are investigating, binding the entire group intricately together. Never fear, Galbraith is a deft and skilled writer who leads readers along, making sure the threads of each story remain clear and distinct. He lets us thrill in following our hero and heroine as they solve the mysteries…the ones they are investigating and the ones complicating their friendship.

What can I say? The books in this series are outstanding and crafted to perfection. I have read each of the series previous books several times each, and once my husband finishes Lethal White, I am prepared to begin reading it again.