[645] Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin

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” She had been eating her meat rare; now she ate it nearly raw—broiled only long enough to take away the refrigerator’s chill and seal in the juices. ” (Part 1, Ch.4, 141)

The story of Rosemary’s Baby is very simple, despite its absurdly bizarre ending: In summer 1966, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are given the chance of an apartment in the much-coveted Bramford after being waitlisted for a long time. The only person who tries to talk them out of the move is Rosemary’s friend Hutch, who actually dies later when he’s within the hair of teling Rosemary the secrets of the building and its shady inhabitants.

One morning, when two or three weeks had gone by, she thought she heard a baby crying. She rayed off the television and listened. There was a frail faraway wailing. Or was there? (Part 3, Ch.1, 225)

Shortly after Woodhouses move in, Guy, a struggling actor, gets a major break in Broadway. The Castevets, their strange and overbearing neighbors, also take a special interest in Rosemary’s welfare after she becomes pregnant. They give a charm and daily drinks made from home-grown herbs. Everything seems to work in her favor until she becomes so emaciated from incessant grinding pain and lack of sleep.

You look like Miss Concentration Camp of 1966. Are you sure this doctor knows what he’s doing? (Part 2, Ch.5, 154)

Tension builds as Rosemary becomes more isolated during her pregnancy. She begins to suspect the Castevets’ motives but whatever evil force at work seems to have singled her out for the achievement of its goal. This creepy atmosphere is gradually escalating, as the setting changes from an idyllic yet blank family life into a nightmare. The book reflects on the wicked human nature and its inner demons, and shows it’s impossible for a humane and morally innocent person to survive in this world of evil. Much of the book is masterful. It’s creepy but not scary—creepy in the way that Rosemary has been chosen from the beginning, as if the apartment irradiates a magnetic field to absorb her. What happens to Rosemary is predictable. The ending is disappointing, with revelation full of unbearable cliché. That said, it was an important book to revive occultism in fiction.

245 pp. Pagesus Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[644] The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

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” Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised. “

Set in a fictional English village, The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first venture into (adult) general fiction, chronicles the political and personal fallout that ensues after the sudden death of a member of the parish council, Barry Fairbrother. The book explores what the loss of Barry Fairbrother would mean to the town of Pagford and to the people close to him—and how they manage to accommodate this huge ragged absence.

It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them.

With Barry’s death, various candidates stand for the parish council election, which sets the whole soapy drama going. The narrative switches its attention between a few families from which candidates come forth to stand for election. Colin Wall, a head deputy whose obsessive compulsive disorder torments him with the idea he has sexually abused his students. Simon Price, a contented prisoner of his own contempt for other people, beats his wife and two sons. Howard Mollison, a right-wing delicatessen owner, and his status-conscious wife, Shirley, are the dark forces scheming to overturn Barry’s work—to de-annex a problematic slum section of Pagford. Howard’s son, Miles Mollison, a solicitor, is acting in his father’s interest by running for council. The goal is to expel the hated Fields, a run-down sink estate with its drug rehabilitation clinic, thereby off-loading responsibility for its drug-addled inhabitants.

Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.

So in short, everyone here is out to do down someone else, including the children, who are plotting revenge on their parents in an insidious manner. Lying at the heart of this claustrophobic town is the Weedon, a single-mother family living in the Fields with a long history of drug addiction and abuse. The teenage daughter, Krystal, is involved with Kay, the newly arrived social worker who is the conduit between Pagford’s charming cobbled streets and Fields, whose bucolic name belies a wasteland of raucously neglected minors. There’s also the judicial, stern Minda Parminder, the town doctor of Indian descent who doesn’t know her daughter is harming herself.

Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.

The Casual Vacancy is good but not great. It’s not an unforgettable book. It captures that small-town pettiness and close mindedness with unflinching details. Pagford’s residents are stripped to their bare bone—a place of seething antagonism, rampant snobbery, sexual frustration, and ill-disguised racism. Rowling is probably more at home dealing with the teenage characters, their yearnings and friendships. The book is not bad but it is overwritten for the message it delivers—social responsibility. It loses its shape toward the end in its fury at the dirty and unfair politics. Rowling could use some editing.

503 pp. Little, Brown and Company. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[642] The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

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” Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had no the day it happened. ” (Ch.1, p.17)

The Little Friend opens with a gripping mysterious death: on Mother’s Day, 9-year-old Robin Dufresnes was found hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of a tree sitting on the overgrown hedge. Atmosphere and tone are perfectly set for a southern Gothic mystery: who or what could have possibly been able to appear in someone’s backyard, while the entire family is within earshot, two kids sitting on the back porch, and grab a little boy and hang him in a tree, and leave no trace. It also provokes that grisly lynching from the recent past.

She tried to calm herself down. Danny Ratliff had killed Robin; she knew it was true, it had to be. And yet when she tried to remind herself exactly how she knew it was true, the reasons were no longer so clear in her mind as they had been and now . . . (Ch.9, p.611)

Death has tainted the family. By the time Harriet reaches puberty, her mother has retreated into a melancholic stupor and her father, a country-club vulgarian, has decamped to Nashville. Harriet and her sister Allison become portégés of their three aunts, one of whom is Libby, a spinster. Seized with a child’s superstitious sense of purpose, Harriet, now 12, takes investigation in her own hands. She begins poking around and soon finds herself mixed up with the Ratliff brothers—a preacher, a meth dealer, a felon, and one of whom, Danny, she makes her suspect.

The book is set in the 1970s, in Mississippi, which, as Tartt brilliantly illustrates, is plagued by the persistence of racial injustice and spooky implication, like dead cats, dying blackbirds, and poisonous snakes. But these literary elements bear no relevance to the story line—depending on what reader wants the story to be.

Harriet, ushered by her curiosity, enters a world of the ugly, the furious, and the reckless. Her investigation, to some readers’ dismay, is inconclusive. The prose is beautiful, full of a fever-dream realism. But the story waxes poetically into a never-ending stream of consciousness. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance of the truth. It’s a portrait of a stagnant family. The ending is frankly frustrating (especially after slogging 600 pages), for most of its length, it lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written.

624 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[641] In the Springtime of the Year – Susan Hill

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” Oh God, how many tears have there been? How much unhappiness and despair and exhaustion and anger and loneliness and misunderstanding? For it seemed at this moment that all the people she had ever known in her life had been weeping, all the days and nights of the past months had been full of nothing but tears. ” (Part III, Ch.15, 242)

The quiet novel was first published in 1974, when the author’s fiancé at the time died suddenly of heart attack. The book opens with the death of Ben Bryce, a young man in his 20s whom reader will only get to know posthumously but someone who clearly has left his imprint on all who knew him. In the Springtime of the Year, spanning about 9 month’s time, begins with the news of Ruth’s husband’s death in early March until the last page in December, when she emerges from her grief.

So they talked about her, Dora Bryce, and Alice, and the wives and mothers of the men Ben had worked with, and told anyone who passed through the village too. They waited for her to go mad and run about the countryside stark naked, to be taken away. To be found dead. (Part I, Ch.1, 23)

Ruth is withdrawn in her own grief, resisting help and resenting other people’s grief. She embraces bereavement alone, refusing to be comforted. Cut off from Ben’s family, who never approved of her. She tries to make sense of Ben’s tragic death, but other events external to her grief will occupy her and eventually deliver her from grief. Her in-laws are equally devastated—but they are not likable. At the head of the Bryce house is an egotistically blinkered and selfish mother who has ruined her grown daughter’s life and despised Ruth. She is inconsolable because she fails to affect her two sons. Her grief is so overwhelming that she refuses to have closure.

Obviously the object of In the Springtime of the Year is a dissection of grief. As grief has to run its course, every page of the book is devoted to moments of grief. The story of healing is also a meditation on the nature of sudden tragedy. But it seems to drag with lots of irrelevant description and not much happening.

254 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[636] The Paris Vendetta – Steve Berry

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Read and reviewed: Hong Kong

” He knew about the South African. One of the world’s most wanted men. Into illicit arms, political assassination, terrorism, whatever the client wanted. Billed himself as a broker of chaos. When Malone retired two years ago, at least a dozen bombings and hundreds of deaths were linked to Lyon. ” (Ch.32, p.186)

Like The King’s Deception, The Paris Vendetta is developed along multiple, action-packed plotlines that are based on little-known though fascinating historical mysteries and legends. Former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone is at first thrown into the middle of a vendetta in which his good friend, Henrik Thorvaldsen is avenging the murder of his son. Having eliminated two of the murderers, the enigmatic industrialist of almost unimaginable wealth is seeking the man behind the conspiracy—Lord Ashby, a British aristocrat who belongs to a shadowy international financial group known as the Paris Club.

He’s after Cai’s killer. I knew it was probably something like that. He’s about to screw up a major intelligence operation, along with compromising a critical source. (Ch.31, p.179)

Malone is awaken by an intruder, Sam Collins, an American Secret Service agent with assassins on his heels. His interest is different, but not unrelated to the grand scheme as the story unfolds. He’s stumbled upon a conspiracy in which Eliza Larocque is planning on making billions through wreaking havoc on different societies in the form of conflict such as terrorism. She is, however, more interested in validating her heritage than gaining illicit profits. She is also involved in her own vendetta in seeking Napoleon’s lost treasure to rightfully claim as her own. At the heart of her insidious plan is also Lord Ashby. Soon Malone finds there is more to the situation than he originally knew. The U.S. Justice Department is closing in on the abduction of one of the world’s most wanted men—Peter Lyon; and the informant, insinuated into Eliza Larocque’s closed group, working with the Americans, is none other than Lord Ashby.

So begins an European cat-and-mouse game between Malone, Thorvaldsen and the dangerous group of semi-terrorists known as the Paris Club. Each is pursuing a personal vendetta. Too many twists and turns and a convoluted plot make the novel meander at times, tripping and choking over its own ideas and details. Malone is stuck between friendship and foe as he is trying to stop Herik Thorveldsen—doing the right thing. Be prepared for a roller coaster of a story that converges dangerously at the Eiffel Tower.

483 pp. Ballantine Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[635] Bangkok Eight – John Burdett

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Read and reviewed: Hong Kong

Farangs don’t understand us Thais. They think if a girl sells her body, then she has no dignity, no limits. Actually, the opposite is often the truth. Women like your mother are very free spirits. Could you imagine Nong ever holding down a normal job? Or putting up with abuse from a man? A woman might sell her body because it’s more dignified and safer than being married to a violent drunk who goes whoring without protection. ” (Ch.27, p.149)

The Buddha taught that karma is the cosmic law by which every cause has an effect, and all our actions have consequences that can last many lifetimes. Karma invokes the concept of individual responsibility of past and present actions, and it is a major theme in this mystery thriller. The novel takes place in Bangkok, and the city becomes its own character. Burdett’s vividly evocative prose depicts the surreal city’s confluence between the old world and the new. Contradictions exist at every aspect of city life. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion in the city, but it exists side by side with one of the most famous sex trades in the world.

You have to remember we’re Buddhist. Compassion is an obligation, even if corruption is inevitable. (Ch.17, p.89)

Sonchai, a police detective in District 8, refuses to take up bribery. He’s an anomaly as corruption is rampant within the police force. He has an uneasy relationship with his devout Buddhism. He firmly believes in values of compassion and impermanence, but after his partner/colleague dies from a particularly nasty snake bite at the beginning of the book—in which an American black serviceman was killed by drug-crazed snakes in a locked Mercedes—he accepts as a matter of course that he will avenge his soul-brother’s death.

The totally desperate but gifted second-stringer, the order-follower who will do anything for money is doing just that. The symbiosis only began with jade. It went on to something quite different. (Ch.39, p.295)

Sonchai and FBI agent Kimberley Jones investigate the death of Bill Bradley, a private and accomplished soldier, with an uncanny eye for beauty—in both woman and jade. He’s also involved with a sadomasochist jeweler who comes to Thailand to indulge his darker fantasies. But at the center of the murder conspiracy is some half-dark Thai who had sex reassignment. The elements meant for shock are somewhat predictable, and culminate in a ridiculously laughable denouement.

That said, Burdett’s evocation of the story through Sonchai’s unique and wry perspective lends a freshness to the proceedings. He’s a microcosm of bangkok itself, constantly split between its strong Buddhist tradition and its equally strong ties to Western capitalism.

431 pp. Corgi Books UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[634] The King’s Deception – Steve Berry

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Read and reviewed: Pattaya, Thailand

” Kathleen forgave Malone for his attitude. Who could blame him? He was in a quandary, the only way out possibly coming from a man who’d just tried to kill them both. This spy business was so different from her everyday experience. Things seemed to change by the minute, with no warning and little time to react. That part she actually liked. Still, it was frustrating not knowing who was on what side, and where she fit in. ” (Ch.56, p.367)

The King’s Deception concerns ex-agent Cotton Malone, who has a conversation with his ex-wife, Pam, concerning an event that took place in London two years previously involving their teenage son, Gary and himself. The dangerous and wild weekend where betrayals collide with current events and the deceptions of hundreds of years ago makes this book very riveting.

With his son on the way back to Copenhagen, where he owns a bookstore, Malone has agreed to escort a third party—Ian Dunne, a teenage fugitive from justice—back to London as a favor to his former boss in the Justice Department. The trio had barely deplaned in London when both Malone’s son and Ian are kidnapped. The man responsible is Blake Antrim, a CIA agent for whom the abduction has a dual purpose. The Scottish government has implausibly elected to release the Libyan terrorist who was tried and convicted of bombing Pan Am flight 103, over the vehement objections of the United States. The Scots will not be deterred from their course of action, and the British refuse to intervene. The U.S. is diplomatically stymied. Antrim, however, believes that a secret that has laid hidden for hundreds of years which, if revealed, could upend one of the most continuing contentious state of affairs in the world today: the English presence in Northern Ireland. The secret concerns the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who completed the conquest of Ireland and seized a sizable portion of that country on behalf of England. Antrim’s CIA-sanctioned operation, coined The King’s Deception, could reveal secret that questions the legitimacy of the reign.

He’s been systematically stealing our national treasures. Delving into our secrets. Over the past forty-eight hours, he sanctioned the violation of Henry VIII’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel. He used percussion explosives to crack away the marble slab, then rummaged through royal remains. (Ch.46, p.312)

Dunne stole a secret that British government will stop at nothing to protect. The British MI6 therefore competes to uncover the mystery and contrives to stop the CIA. A secret society also would kill to defend and protect royal secrets. Bearing a personal grudge against Malone, Antrim would make a deal with the secret society at the expense of Malone’s life. With assassins, traitors, spies, and dangerous disciples of the secret society, Malone is forced into a race against time as he battles to decipher the puzzle encrypted in a coded journal—and strive to preserve the world order from a potentially catastrophic revelation.

Berry writes in a clipped style, revealing bits of details along the way to maintain the nail-biting suspense. The author’s strength is his ability to weave thrillers from historical events. He made two trips to England to research for the novel. The story is action-packed but complex, with twists and shifting alliances. The unfolding of the historical conspiracy requires some patience, seemingly eclipsed by the present conflicts.

450 pp. Hodder/Hachette UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[633] Innocent – Scott Turow

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Read and reviewed: Pattaya, Thailand

” I hover then, above myself, my soul looking down on my hungry heart. How can longing unfulfilled seem to be the only meaningful emotion in life? But it does. ” (Part 1, II, 11)

Innocent picks up from where Presumed Innocent left off twenty years ago, since Rusty Sabich went on trial for the twisted murder of his lover and colleague Carolyn Polhemus. The opening of the sequel is somewhat dubious and far-fetched: Rusty is still married to Barbara, his volatile, unhappy wife. Rusty, now 60 and the chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, had decided to stay married to her when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They returned to the life they’d had before the Polhemus trial—so what if Barbara played a diabolical role in that case. It’s for the best for their emotionally fragile son, Nat.

I gave up thinking I fully understood my parents—either one of them—a long time ago. Who they were to each other, or in the parts of their lives that never touched mine, is something I won’t ever completely comprehend. It’s a little like trying to figure out who actors really are bwyond the roles they play on-screen. (Part 2, 36)

Innocent opens with the shocking scene of Rusty sitting on his bed next to Barbara, who is dead. He has accompanied the body for a day before calling his son or the police. The initial reports says Barbara died of heart failure, but Rusty’s old adversary, Tommy Molto, now the acting prosecuting attorney, is looking into her death, egged on by his zealous chief of deputy. Rusty, they suspect, was having an affair and might have murdered his wife rather than go through a messy divorce.

He had pounded Sabich, but there had been a stubborn center to the man. There was not a minute when he looked as if he had killed anybody. Not that he would. Tommy had never spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with Rusty, but it was something deep and complex. (Part 3, 27)

What is wrong with Rusty is not that he has killed his wife, trying to feed her food that triggers adverse reaction with her antidepressant. It is about the “unnamable piece of happiness” that has eluded him his entire life. At age 60, he wants to throw off the dutiful restraint on which he’s staked his life. He begins an affair with his former clerk and finds himself unexpectedly falling in love. When circumstantial evidence points to his overdosing the wife, he stands in trial. A confluence of events and witness testimony also help prosecution build a persuasive case.

Two story lines that dovetail with implacable momentum keeps the pages turning. One involves events leading to Barbara’s death; the other recounts what constitutes a terrible case of déjà vu for Rusty. Unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t foray into a look at how justice system is intertwined with politics and municipal corruption. But Turow does pull off the whip-sharp courtroom exchanges and the twist and counter-twist. The last-minute revelation does turn everything on its head. I have the feeling that sometimes it’s unnecessary to uncover the absolute truth because the courtroom is like a roll of dice “where the million daily details of a life suddenly get elevated to evidence of murder.”

539 pp. Vision. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[632] The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison

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Read in Bangkok and Pattaya, reviewed in Pattaya, Thailand

” Put up a front, go through the motions, don’t say a word. Act as if all is well and all will be well. Jodi’s great gift is her silence . . . keep her own counsel, but silence is also her weapon. The woman who refuses to object, who doesn’t yell and scream—there’s strength in that, and power. The way she overrides sentiment, won’t enter into blaming or bickering, never gives him an opening, doesn’t allow him to turn it back on her. (Part I, 122)

The slow, murderous disintegration of a marriage is all too believable in The Silent Wife, a book set in Chicago that switches between Todd and Jodi’s perspectives. Jodi is a psychotherapist, who is “deeply unaware that her life is now peaking . . . that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.” (Part I, 4) Because her partner for twenty years (they never married), odd Gilbert, never a faithful man, has fallen for someone else, his best friend’s daughter half his age, and is leaving her. He is also completely unable to see the truth of things or to face up the reality of his situation—trying futilely to stay loyal to two women. He will not heedlessly walk away from the nest he built with Jodi and yet turns his back on her. She is also about appearances, happy to pretend she doesn’t know about Todd’s numerous infidelities while keeping a perfect home for him—until the news of Natasha Kovacs’s pregnancy “thrashed around inside her like a trapped bird, giving her a kind of psychic vertigo.” (Part I, 101)

She loved him like that for a long time, even after she knew him well. The renewal of her love she attributes to their separation. The shock of losing him has affected her deeply, reactivated her pulse, flushed out disused chambers of her heart. (Part I, 184)

The Silent Wife is a prickly story of a marriage gone awry. Reader is told from the start that Jodi will become a killer, but Harrison takes her time, building the small details and emotional nuances which make Jodi’s move to commit the unspeakable believable. The secret of the book’s spell lies not in ingenious twists but in its meticulous plausibility. Each alternating chapter escalates their character, presenting a long-term relationship that seems unimpeachable on the outside but is slowly rotting from within.

She finds now that she wants very much for him to have seen it coming. This is her wish. That he registered the truth, understood it as her doing, saw that he brought it on himself. (Part II, 317)

Jodi’s trip to the tripping point makes each subsequent page a waiting game. Her choices and Todd’s realizations play out a measured gait toward the promised homicide. She’s in denial but not really, it’s just she knows that to give his affairs credence would mean tearing down the facade of her perfectly constructed reality. The book is so well-paced but predictable. As it advances into treacherous territory, Harrison’s elegant, incisive prose gets darker, more dangerous, and dirtier, showing how things can slip so far without either party realizing—that even murder can slowly, insidiously, begin to seem the best, if not the only option.

372 pp. Headline UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[631] The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris

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Read and reviewed in Pattaya, Thailand

” He had done it five times that they knew of, had Bill. At least five times, and probably more, over the past ten months he had abducted a woman, killed her and skinned her. ” (Ch.11, p.70)

The Silence of the Lambs is obviously not Hannibal Lecter’s first outing, but it certainly will remain the most memorable of the four that feature him. In this book, the FBI requires the doctor’s insight in order to catch another serial killer Buffalo Bill, who enjoys parading about in the flayed skins of his victims. At once a serial killer himself, Hannibal Lecter is locked in a high-security prison, where trainee agent Clarice Starling is sent to charm him into offering help.

What does he do, Clarice? What is the first and principal thing he does, what need does he serve by killing? He covets. How do we begin to covet? We begin by coveting what we see everyday. (Ch.47, p.296)

Lecter agrees, n the condition that Starling reveal details of her early life for analysis, and much of the novel is devoted to their queasy tête-à-tête. Lecter is cold, calculating, charming, lucid, highly dangerous and utterly remorsely. But in the company of Clarice Starling, he is a polite, even avuncular presence. And therein lies the magic of his character: one is scared of him and wants to hate him, but when he rather makes his bid for freedom, one is somehow rooting for him.

Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault. (Ch.3, p.21)

One can’t help feeling that the book is really Hannibal Lecter’s show and not Buffalo Bill who is on the loose. It’s through Hannibal Lecter’s beautiful mind and insights that eventually lead Starling to Buffalo Bill, who is, literally, making a girl suit out of real girls. It takes a psychopath to know one, as Lecter demonstrates how accurately he anticipates Buffalo Bill’s next move.

The Silence of the Lambs is a finely crafted thriller, and there is a relishing, bard-bitten quality to Harris’s prose. The beauty of his writing lies in his deep understanding of his character’s psyches. He understands who they are and what they want from each other. Lecter still stands as one of the most complex and layered characters in suspense fiction. As it’s usually the case for memorable encounters, it leaves reader feeling that all stars aligned for this strong, unflinching and trusting young woman to have met this brilliant, but sadistic mind, desperately seeking for something unique. This deep, complicated bond is what compellingly turns the pages.

367 pp. St. Martin. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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