The Wolf Wants In – Laura McHugh
I saw this book described as being for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and/or season three of True Detective. I loved Sharp Objects; I’ve never watched True Detective but have always heard good things. That was enough to get me to pick this up. It also help that someone I used to be friends with blurbed the book and served as a mentor to McHugh.[1]

And it was worth it. This was a really well written, entertaining, and interesting mystery.

It is told from the perspective of two women on different sides of a death in a small Kansas town. One, the sister of the man who died, shares most of her story after his death, as she searches for clues into the truth of his final days. The other, a cousin of the deceased’s wife, shares her story from before his death. Through her story we slowly see exactly how the man’s death came about.

That truth of the death is well unspooled even if there isn’t much surprise in what actually happened.

But the stories of those two women are where the real meat of the book is. They both face struggles and use immense inner strength to overcome them. They refuse to accept the narratives forced upon them by a small town and its history. If I’m not mistaken McHugh uses one of these characters for her next book.

I will definitely be reading that, as well as some of McHugh’s earlier work.

The Plotters – Un-su Kim

This book follows Reseng, a Korean assassin, as he begins to realizes the life he has chosen is terrible.

In the book, Korea is run by corrupt politicians who maintain power through the use of “plotters”: unnamed and unknown people who send Reseng and other groups of assassins to dispatch those who run afoul of their rules.

Reseng, though, begins to question how this system works. After he finds a small bomb hidden in his bathroom he sets out on a search for who is trying to kill him. That leads him to a group of women who are trying to blow the entire system apart. He joins them and does as much as he can to help them toward their goal.

What makes this book so much fun is the dialogue and overall tone. It is light, sarcastic, and hip. Reseng hints at a Korean Vincent Vega or Jules Winfield. In the West we are often presented with a view of Asian cultures that are strict and joyless. Un-su Kim’s Korea is hilarious and violent and seems like a lot of fun.

The book was translated from Korean. That also made me think about how difficult to can be for translators to ensure that tone and meaning are consistent on both sides of the translation. I’m sure this was close to the original. For a moment, though, I laughed thinking what if the translator had completely changed the book’s atmosphere by making it more sarcastic in English that it was in Korean.

August Snow – Stephen Mack Jones

I love reading first novels in a series when you can tell, very early on, that this is a character you want to spend more time with.

August Snow is a former Marine and Detroit police officer. He was a rising star in the DPD, son of an immensely respected officer. But when he pointed out some corruption in the department he was fired. In turn he sued the force and city, won a $12 million verdict, and fled to Europe and Asia to drink away his guilt and mixed feelings.

Now he has returned home, and not everyone is pleased. Including a lot of cops who view him as a Judas. Soon after his return, a former client pitches a potential investigatory job to him. A few days later she is dead, of a suspicious suicide, and Snow jumps into the case.

Stephen Mack Jones was a poet and playwright before he began cranking out crime novels. You feel that background in his language. While the story is tough and gritty, like you want a good crime story to be, it is also sharp and literate. Jones gives Snow a mixed heritage – his father was Black, his mother Mexican, and he grew up in Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood – and the way he layers these influences is nicely done. The moments are violence are extremely violent, but they also pass quickly. The dialogue is terrific. Jones hits all the checkmarks you want to hit in a book like this while also making it feel fresh and new.

Jones seems like a fine, Midwestern counterpoint to someone like George Pelecanos. There are two more August Snow novels. I’ll be checking them out soon.

The Ghost at the Table – Suzanne Berne

It seems like books that take place at Thanksgiving are always about some kind of familial disaster. Bingo for this one, which is about an absolute meltdown of a Thanksgiving.

Berne tells the story of Cynthia, a writer from San Francisco who visits her sister in New England over the holiday. They pick up their invalid father, from whom Cynthia has long been estranged, from his home with plans to drop him at an assisted living center. But those plans are thwarted and set off a series of unexpected events and encounters that turn this Thanksgiving into a disaster.

It’s a good enough book. There was a moment when it seemed poised to veer into farce, and holiday farce is the best kind of farce. Unfortunately Berne directed the story another way and it became awfully dark and I didn’t really like any of the characters by the end.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but think about our family holidays. The book is centered on relationships between two different groups of sisters. My first thought was of how S and her sisters interact when they all get together. Most gatherings are fine, but there are the ones when at least one person is in a mood (sometimes it’s a sister, sometimes a brother, sometimes a spouse/partner) and years of family history come roaring back.

But I also realized I’m old enough where I can’t just sympathize with Cynthia and her sister, adults with older parents. I kept thinking a few decades ahead in time, when S and I will be the older parents and our girls will be the adults, weighed down by decades of their own issues. That was sobering in many, many ways. Hopefully our girls treat us better than the two sisters at the center of The Ghost at the Table treated their parents.

  1. I say “used to” simply because I have not seen her nor her husband in probably 15 or 16 years. We were once in the same circle that spent many happy hours, house parties, and Royals tailgates together.  ↩