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firstCLUE - You Will Never Be Found by Tove Alsterdal, The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz, Black Wolf by Kathleen Kent, He Said He Would Be Late by Justine Sullivan

When we wrap up an issue, I often try to create an elevator speech for each of the books. Here’s a go at this week’s titles.
Do the writings of Helene Tursten, Jo Nesbø, and Lars Kepler put a smile on your face? Then you’ll love being locked in a Swedish basement, without food or water, with Where You Will Never Be Found.
“When women support each other,” the saying goes, “incredible things happen.” Yes, incredible things happen at The Writing Retreat, if you consider exploitation and murder to be incredible.
Can’t decide what sort of book you want to read? Then get a hold of Black Wolf, alternately a historical novel (the ‘90s), a tale of espionage, a love story, and a murder mystery.
Sometimes the villain in a domestic thriller is a deranged ex, but typically its the husband. Check out whether the delightfully well-written He Said He Would Be Late stays true to form or carves out its own resolution.
Till next week,
Brian Kenney

Dark Shadows
Alsterdal, Tove. You Will Never Be Found (The High Coast Series, 2). Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies. January, 2023. 448p. Harper.
Classic Nordic noir: a bleak, northern Swedish town; a serial killer whose victims are each murdered in the same, horrifying way; alcohol is always the drink of choice; a mother’s mind is being stolen by dementia. In Malmberget, above the Arctic Circle, houses are being relocated by a mining company—or else they’ll fall into a huge sinkhole. But as they review the empty homes, workers discover a man locked in one of the basements, barely alive. Over 600 miles south, Detective Eira Sjodin is investigating the vanishing of a middle-aged man, a much-beloved actor, whose disappearance is inexplicable. Slowly Eira is able to connect the dots, and while the man’s identity becomes clear, motive does not. Like Tana French’s work, this novel is a richly character-driven procedural, and Alsterdal digs deeply into the backgrounds of several of the detectives—examining their lives and loves. Eira’s spare time is consumed with relocating her mother to a nursing home for memory loss while recognizing that her feelings for GG, her boss, run deeper than she would like to acknowledge. But when GG goes missing, it is no holds barred as the Detective sets off on her riskiest move yet. This novel is seriously dark but at the same time absolutely compelling. While the book works as a stand-alone, readers will appreciate reading the initial title in the series, We Know You Remember, first.—Brian Kenney 
Mean Girls
Bartz, Julia. The Writing Retreat. February, 2023. 320p. Atria.
Expecting a cozy retreat the likes of MacDowell or Yaddo, with the residents being slowly and genteelly knocked off? Then look elsewhere. This intimate retreat is the brain child of the renowned feminist horror writer Roza Vallo, who invites a handful of women under 30 to a month at her Victorian mansion in upstate New York. The women are all fierce Roza devotees, especially our narrator, Alex, who’s hoping the experience will help her push past a yearlong writers’ block. No sooner do they all gather for their first dinner than Roza starts revealing her crazy cards: the cohort will have to turn in 12 pages a day; read each other’s work; participate in group workshops; meet regularly with herself, Roza; and complete a novel by the end of the month. Whew! But best of all, at month’s end, a winner will receive a publishing contract for seven figures. This largesse, combined with Roza’s cruel badgering of the participants, ups the anxiety and tension in the group. But if only it stopped there. Slowly the cohort begins to come unhinged, false identities are discovered, one woman disappears in the midst of a horrendous snow storm, and everything the women hold to be true about Roza turns out to be false. This book is one hell of a wild romp.Brian Kenney
Not Your Father's Spy Novel
⭐Kent, Kathleen. Black Wolf. February 2023. 400p. Mulholland.
This is an espionage story with a difference, featuring not a dashing ladies’ man but a young CIA operative, Melvina Donleavy, who knows her bureaucracy and sticks to it, offering an interesting look at modern-day tradecraft. Mel appears to her CIA colleagues to have no special skills, but when she’s in danger, top levels of government get involved. Readers are in on the picture, learning from the get-go that Mel has lifelong recall of every face she sees. It freaked out a middle-school crush when she mentioned having seen him at a sports event that had thousands in attendance, but when she’s sent to Byelorussia in 1990 to see if particular Iranian nuclear scientists can be spotted it’s a handy talent indeed. Mel and her colleagues are undercover, the others posing as accountants who are sent ahead of a U.S. donation to make sure none of it is earmarked for nuclear activity, she as their secretary. The stultifying Soviet observation machine moves into place, with the spies watched everywhere they go and a rigid air of we-know-you’re-spies-and-we-know-that-you-know-we-know coming off their hosts in waves. The group soon hears that a serial killer, the Svisloch Dushitel, or Svisloch Strangler, is at work in Minsk, but as its illegal to even mention the crime of serial killing, Mel has her work cut out to get to the bottom of it. Espionage, a love story, and murder mystery, all by a Department of Defense contractor assigned to the former Soviet Union in the ‘90s? Yes, please.Henrietta Verma
An Ambiguous Affair
Sullivan, Justine. He Said He Would Be Late. March 2023. 304p. Henry Holt.
Ready for a psychological game? Liz Bennett wasn’t, but that’s what her marriage has turned out to be—but is the game a one-sided figment of her imagination, or is her husband, Arno, an adulterer who’s playing her along? The backdrop to the maybe game is deep unhappiness and insecurity on Liz’s part. She and Arno are new parents, and motherhood is more difficult than she imagined. It’s not very enjoyable, with baby Emma looking at her “like she’s an elderly spinster I’m grooming for her banking information,” and no time or energy to write a follow-up to her semi-successful first novel. At least she has Arno, who’s worried about his wife’s happiness and shows love and support for her at every turn—a steadfast situation that she’s terrified to lose after she sees a text to him from an attractive coworker, a message that could signify a romance. Liz is soon spiraling into an abyss of fear and suspicion, one that’s incredible enough to keep readers turning the pages but believable enough to elicit real empathy for this broken soul. Sullivan has a way with characters, using dialog and Liz’s astute, cutting observations to bring Arno, crunchy-granola nanny Kyle, and bitchy-perfect sister-in-law Rose (“I’ve been up since 4 a.m.”) to gossip-worthy life. Fans of women’s fiction will eat this up.Henrietta Verma
Extra Credit
The stunning new crime novel that’s a Trojan horse for exploring the hurt of colonisation | The Spinoff
Sarah Pearse - The Retreat | WAMC
If You've Never Read Anything By James Patterson, Here's The Book You Should Start With
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

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