“Burning Bright,” by Nicholas Petrie. Putnam, 432 pages.
Books that start with a woman bound in the rear of a vehicle will normally hit my discard pile at top velocity, but Nicholas Petrie turned that trope around by page 8, and so well that he kept me happily reading to the end.
June Cassidy is a journalist on the run from the guys who unsuccessfully tried to kidnap her. Peter Ash is a wounded warrior cursed with extreme claustrophobia. They meet in the top of a redwood and spend the rest of the book outsmarting their pursuers with the help of Peter’s extended network of tough, loyal veterans.
The romance of two misfits who have finally found their missing piece, the humor and stalwart courage of the main characters, and their clever maneuvers will make this one a must-read for fans of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield. (And who isn’t a Jane Whitefield fan?)
“The Girl Before,” by JP Delaney. Ballantine. 352 pages.
The word “Girl” in the title is a publisher’s not-so-subtle hint that this one will be psychological, featuring a female main character and with a killer twist a la “Gone Girl” or “The Girl on the Train.” Some are just copycats, but this one finds new ground to plow.
“The Girl Before” follows two women who rent the same house years apart. The house is a minimalist showplace, tricked out with smart-house gadgets that not only read your position to control lights, environment and so on, but also remember all your preferences (shower heat, for instance) and monitor your food intake, exercise and online activity. Sounds great, no? Well, actually no, because as anyone who has ever rented will anticipate, these great features benefit the owner more than the tenant. This landlord, also the architect of the house, screens for a certain profile and then makes his moves on the women in a fixed pattern, as we see in alternating chapters where we watch Emma and Jane both fall for the mysterious, controlling owner.
Emma is already dead when the book opens, and we watch Jane follow the same path. If it’s made into a movie, I’m sure people in the audience will be hollering at the screen, trying to warn her.
“Different Class,” by Joanne Harris. Touchstone, 416 pages.
This is a wonderful, layered story with murder at its center, but with other horrors added: bigotry, secrecy, twisted religion.
The main character, Roy Straitley, teaches Latin at St. Oswald’s, a boy’s school in England, “as firmly attached to the place as the gargoyles on the Chapel roof.” His blend of gruff academia and humor is eminently satisfying: Rumpole of the Bailey meets Mr. Chips. And his integrity is a breath of fresh air.
Changes are coming to his school, spearheaded by one of his least favorite former pupils. Johnny Harrington is the new headmaster, full of plans for upheaval in the name of cost-cutting. In diary entries from the 1980s, we see the evil eddying around Harrington and his closest friends in their school days.
Joanne Harris builds characters across a long arc that makes for an eminently satisfying ending. Her villain is a masterpiece of complacent evil and there’s more than one twist worthy of the “girl” books, but in Harris’ masterful hands they are pivotal without being the book’s one trick.
NOTE: I jumped the gun and ran an early review of “The Dry” by Jane Harper (Flatiron Books, 336 pages) in September. It actually goes on sale Tuesday. It’s a debut novel set in an Australian farm town during an epic drought that many believe drove a man to murder-suicide.