firstCLUE

By Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney

First Clue - Blood Atonement by S.M. Freedman, Killing Me by Michelle Gagnon, Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, Terra Nova by Henriette Lazaridis

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When I was growing up, summer meant one thing: reading.
My parents were proud to have raised a reader, but anxious that I wouldn’t go outdoors and play with other children. Playing sports in particular. With other boys (shudder).
Eventually this gay boy brokered a deal, agreeing to read on the front porch (fresh air) and spend a few hours each day on lawn work (largely ignored). I also learned to borrow the fattest books I could find to minimize my having to beg for a ride to the library and risk reopening the whole reading-versus-sports can of worms. Dickens, Trollope, and—bingo!—Tolstoy were my childhood friends. One could have worse.
This week Etta and I both read books that were among the best we’d read in a long time (Kapoor’s Age of Vice and Lazaridis’ Terra Nova.) I’ll let the reviews speak for themselves, just to say that both books would make excellent summer reads. Not the frozen-margarita stained, sand-in-the-spine types of summer reads. The lift-you-up-and-transport-you-to-another-place-and-time sort of summer reads.
And we can all use a little of that these days, can’t we?
Till next week,
Brian

A Locked-Room Mystery with a Twist
Freedman, S.M. Blood Atonement. November. 416p. Dundurn Press.
Locked-room mysteries and thrillers are booming, but this one has a twist. In the 1990s, young Grace DeRoche’s family lives in a Canadian branch of the FLDS, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Talk about a locked room. Children in the cult headed by Warren Jeffs, who in real life has only left the FBI’s Most-Wanted list because he’s serving a life sentence for child sexual assault, live with their fathers and the men’s multiple wives in Brigham, a secretive, abusive compound. They spend their days praying, in fear of outside-world apostates, are illiterate, and are subject to harsh “corrections.” Girls are married young to much older men. After the police come and “Brigham’s Ten”—Grace and nine other children—escape, the rest of the compound dies by mass suicide. In the years that follow, Grace remains in the locked room of her mind: she has dissociative identity disorder, with multiple personas taking over when she’s stressed. Stress comes in the deaths of members of the Ten, and Detective Beau Brunelli must protect Grace, a challenge when the woman doesn’t believe she needs protection and is too frightened and confused to accept help. Freedman could have made this sensationalist, but it’s a thought-provoking read, providing a look at life after a cult and portraying the survivors as real people, warts and all. The shocking ending here is a reward of its own, and getting there is a journey through incredible details of life inside Warren Jeffs’ world and inside the mind of a troubled woman. While you wait, try the Netflix documentary Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, which covers the FLDS and is also absorbing.—Henrietta Verma
It Really Does Stay in Vegas
Gagnon, Michelle. Killing Me. 336p. May 2023. Putnam. 
 Ever feel like you’ve lost your reading mojo? Spending too much time consuming mediocre series on Netflix? Then this fun, female-driven narrative featuring a grifter/psych student, a terrifying serial killer, a cool and elegant femme fatale, and a handful of Las Vegas ladies is sure to get you back into the reading groove. A serial killer is stalking Amber’s college campus, and despite all her street smarts he manages to kidnap her, dragging her off to his lair. Just when things start to get serious, Amber is liberated by this cool and aloof woman who promptly disappears. But when the cops, and then the FBI, show up, Amber gets jittery—she and law enforcement don’t mix—so she heads out of town, randomly picking Vegas. It would be foolhardy to try to summarize this story; it’s got more twists and turns than the Tour de France. Let’s just say that Amber’s voice—witty with a side of snark—is just everything, the dialogue is pumping, and the characters are, strangely enough, completely credible. And how refreshing is it to read a thriller without any male leads? Turns out you don’t miss them at all. An absolute delight from beginning to end.Brian Kenney 
From Sunny, With Love and Violence
⭐Kapoor, Deepti. Age of Vice. 544p. January, 2023. Riverhead
A bold, ambitious, and sprawling work that can only be described as Dickensian, so rich is it in socioeconomic observation, unforgettable characters, sentimentality and violence in equal measure, and, of course, the pleasure of plot. Like any good epic, the novel opens in media res, at a horrific auto crash that kills five homeless people. Behind the Mercedes’ wheel is Ajay, loyal servant to Sunny, an enormously wealthy playboy whose riches protects him from any retribution. But Ajay, of course, wasn’t driving the car, he’s a mere prop positioned to take the fall. How did he end up here? The novel heads back to Ajay at age eight, when he was sold into servitude, his eventual meeting with Sunny in the Punjab mountains, and the move to New Delhi, where he emerges as Sunny’s servant, drug dealer, chef, and bodyguard. Here the narrative jumps to Sunny, still obsessed with his gangster father, whose corruption and violence he wants to transcend while continuously finding himself enmeshed in it. Only his lover Neda, a journalist whose passion for Sunny is outweighed by his immorality, can seemingly reach through to him. As the novel moves among these three characters, all pushed to their very edges, readers are left to wonder whether anyone will escape alive. Brilliant and engrossing, terrifying and heartbreaking, this is one of the best books of the year. Happy to follow these characters anywhere, I can only hope this is the first in a trilogy.—Brian Kenney        
A Cold Affair
⭐Lazaridis, Henriette. Terra Nova. December. 272p. Pegasus Books.
The supposed hero of this book is Captain Edward Heywoud, a paragon of colonial manliness who “[trails] ambition and resolve.” For years, he’s climbed the world’s highest peaks, sometimes with his photographer wife, Viola Colfax. Now, in 1910, he and long-time climbing companion James Watts and several other hardy men and their sled dogs are tackling the ultimate challenge: to reach the South Pole. And not just make it there, but do so before a Norwegian expedition claims the glory for its king rather than England’s. In a parallel struggle is Viola, who also isn’t the book’s hero, fascinating though she is. She’s in love with Edward, although he disapproves of many of her activities and is fond of telling her what she will do, but she also loves the gentler James, and the two are having an affair. While the men are away—a voyage chronicled in gripping and often horrible detail by author Lazaridis—Viola takes on the challenge of documenting the suffragette movement, a project interrupted when the men return and their photographs lead her to think their triumph is a fraud. As to the hero here, it’s not a particular person but the bodies described in this gorgeous and devastating work: James’s and Edward’s in Antarctica as they compare the calories they use against the remaining food and end up eating their dogs; the hunger-striking suffragettes, whose emaciated, police-battered  bodies feature in a fascinating project by Viola; the steadfast figure of Mary, Edward and Viola’s maid, who indirectly makes the expeditions possible but is taken for granted by the family; and the body of the Earth, which tries to kill the men even as it enables their fame. The frustrating, brilliant Viola is one of my favorite characters, and this book one of my favorite reads, in a long time.Henrietta Verma
Extra Credit
Ben Winters on Why He Writes About Loss | Literary Hub
What Is The Difference Between Mystery, Suspense, and Thriller Novels?
10 Most Puzzling Impossible Crime Mysteries
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

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