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Josh Lanyon

JOINT REVIEW:  Stranger on the Shore by Josh Lanyon

JOINT REVIEW: Stranger on the Shore by Josh Lanyon

Twenty years ago, little Brian Arlington was kidnapped from his family’s Long Island estate and was never seen again. The trail went cold, but investigative journalist Griff Hadley has always thought there was more to the story—much more. When the Arlingtons’ patriarch invites him to stay at their estate to research his true crime book, Griff can’t say no. It’s the story of a lifetime.

But not everyone is happy about Griff’s presence. Relatives and staff alike regard him coldly, including Pierce Mather, the Arlingtons’ attractive lawyer, who is more than a little wary of Griff’s motives.

When a stranger shows up claiming to be the long-lost Brian, Griff and Pierce are united in their suspicions. Startled to have found an ally in the buttoned-up lawyer, Griff soon realizes it’s hard to keep a professional distance. Even in the midst of a groundbreaking investigation, even in the face of a shocking family secret…

 

Dear Josh Lanyon,

Sirius and I both looked forward to your new standalone mystery and rather than flip a coin to decide who won the right to review it, we wrote a joint conversational review.

Sirius: I thought this book was your best book since you came back from your sabbatical – right till almost the end when the main twist of the plot was revealed. I thought it was an elegantly written mystery and romance felt like a natural, organic part of it, but I just did not buy the twist – at all. Note, I am not talking about any realism here – I do not need realism in my escapism fiction, but I need it to be believable. The twist was too much of a coincidence for me to buy into and that is the only reason why I did not grade the book any higher. And I even *liked it* on the emotional level – it was all nicely foreshadowed, in fact I started having suspicions about it in the second half of the book, but I was so hoping that it would not be true. Alas, it was. And I cannot say *a single word* about this twist, because it will reveal the biggest spoiler in this novel. I do not want to even put it in under spoiler tags, because it will ruin any chance of the surprise for all readers.

Lanyon Stranger on the ShoreSunita: I didn’t hate the twist nearly as much as you did, Sirius! Like you, I started to have my suspicions fairly early on. It recalled other mysteries to me (including some favorites, but I won’t say which ones because spoilers).

Sirius: Let’s start from the beginning. I thought the blurb was written perfectly – it tells the reader about a mystery, hints at how annoying Brian’s family could be, hints *very* vaguely at “there was so much to the story – much more”, but avoids any specific details whatsoever.

Griff Hadley seemed to dream about writing this book about one of the most famous kidnappings of the last two decades for years. Griff is 27 years old and he seems to really eager to write this book.
While of course he wants to make a break in his career, he is also very invested in finding answers in this case. Secretly, or not so secretly, Griff is hoping that he will be able to find something that both the FBI and the police missed in this case, something that will either prove conclusively whether Brian’s convicted kidnapper is guilty. The man who was convicted of the crime was one of the staff at the Arlington family estate, and while he did not deny that he wrote a ransom note, he claimed that he only wrote it to extort money from the family after the kidnapping. He insisted that never kidnapped Brian and did not know what happened to him. He was convicted anyway as the most likely suspect at the time.

When Griff arrives at the estate, members of the family do not seem to be very cooperative at all. In fact I thought that most of them incorporated the worst stereotypes of “rich and famous” – acting as if they are better than everybody else just because they have money even if they never worked in their entire lives and by work I do not mean doing hard physical labor necessarily. Maybe those stereotypes are true, I have no idea, but initially I just could not bring myself to feel much sympathy for this family – all except the grandfather, who seemed to be genuinely in pain over Brian’s kidnapping and apparent murder even after two decades. Of course most of them stopped being stereotypes and became more human over the course of the story, but I still did not warm up to most members of the family all that much for various reasons.

Sunita: I agree that the family seemed a bit stereotyped. Rich people come in all types and levels of likability, but initially these characters seemed more like types than individuals. But I attributed that to the type of mystery that Lanyon seemed to be writing: it felt like a classic country-estate mystery combined with a Lindbergh style missing child mystery. Although it is set in the present and people use cellphones and other modern technology, there was a timeless feel to the setting and the character interactions. The first half of the story is set almost completely on the estate and there is a tight focus on the characters and the setting, evoked in Lanyon’s effective, atmospheric prose:

Griff took a final glance in the mirror, swore, and headed back to the bathroom to have one last shot at slicking down the persistent cowlick that made him look about twelve. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of haircut he got, he always ended up looking like Dennis the Menace.

Finally, having run out of reasons to stall, Griff left the cottage, walking across the wooden bridge and hiking up the brick path to the villa. Bloodred sunset splashed across the ivory sky, but inside the tunnel of trees it was nearly dark. Discreet blue-white lights shone at the base of the trees to light the way.

The bees were gone, the birds silent. There was no sound but his footfalls on the old bricks. It was so quiet he thought he could hear the distant crash and thunder of waves.

Already he had a better sense of what the size of the estate meant in practical terms. So much ground to search, so many places to hide. Even if the kidnappers hadn’t had that significant head start, they would have had a number of advantages.

Griff left the shelter of the trees and the house stood before him, lights blazing in welcome. Of course, it wasn’t actually in welcome. It was in complete disregard for natural resources and indifference to utility bills.

Sirius: Griff is determined to continue despite the fact that the only family member that is particularly happy with him being there and asking questions is the patriarch (and I am not sure if his state of mind could be described as happy – he just really wanted answers and hoped to get them from whoever could provide it). Pierce Mather, the family lawyer who has grown up with the Arlingtons, also tries hard to get Griff to back off, but to no avail.

I really liked Griff – I liked that while he is Lanyon’s “vulnerable” hero type, his vulnerability did not overshadow who he was, was both important and at the same time not overpowering for the plot. I have to be really vague here because I am afraid that it may hint at some important spoiler developments. Griff is stubborn and tough and I thought he was really smart. I enjoyed getting to know him a lot and wanted him to succeed in what he wanted to achieve.

Pierce is the “arrogant, annoying” character type, but he is also loyal and intelligent, and fiercely protective. While I really wanted to slap him several times throughout the story, I understood the reason for his actions and he did not go over the line which exists in my mind in order for the characters like him to annoy me. I really liked the beginning of the romance between them – it only takes a week while Griff is at the estate and they connect, but it felt right and completely satisfying for me.

Sunita: I agree with you on the characters. I was thinking after I finished the story that Griff was like some of his predecessor characters but he definitely had more steel in his spine, or at least he seemed more comfortable with who he was and his background. The repeated comparisons of his modest upbringing with the fabulous wealth of the Arlingtons didn’t work for me that well, but it’s a traditional motif (think of the movie Sabrina, for example).

Pierce started as the type but turned into his own person fairly quickly. Again, he was reminiscent of other Lanyon characters but he was fully fleshed out rather than being written through author shortcuts, so that made him work for me even though, like you, I find the arrogant, annoying character can get old pretty fast. Here his arrogance seemed to fit his character, and it didn’t define him. And his annoying traits were as much a result of him doing his job as anything. I like characters who are shaped by their occupations, especially when those occupations are demanding, and Lanyon as usual conveys this very well.

I also thought some of the smaller characters were very well depicted, especially the two Arlington sisters and Pierce’s sister Diana.

The mystery worked well for me. It unfolded slowly, there were a few red herrings, just enough to keep me interested but not so many that I got irritated, and the twist that comes two-thirds of the way through was excellent. On the one hand it was completely predictable to a seasoned mystery reader, but on the other I honestly did not know how it was going to turn out: there was just enough detail to make me unsure that the obvious answer was the right one. This, combined with the big twist at the end, made for an engrossing second half of the book. And I really liked the way The Great Gatsby (the book, not the movies) framed and informed the story both explicitly and implicitly.

Sirius: So how do I grade this book? I liked everything in there, but I did not buy the twist as I said in the beginning and pretty much without this twist this story would not have existed – the events would have unfolded differently, it is that central to the plot. I give it a B-.

Sunita: As I said at the outset, I wasn’t nearly as bothered by the Big Reveal, either because it made sense to me or because it’s one I’ve read and enjoyed before. I liked the blend of classic-mystery tropes in a more contemporary, romance-novel setting, so I give it a B.

 

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REVIEW:  The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon

REVIEW: The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon

Dear Josh Lanyon:

Sunita: As your faithful readers know, you took 2012 as a sabbatical year and did not release any new novellas or novels (although you did release two short stories). Blood Red Butterfly, which I reviewed briefly earlier this year, came out in February, and last month you released this first novella-length installment of a new series. Since both Sirius and I consider your books auto-buys, we thought it would be fun to do a joint review of The Haunted Heart: Winter.

haunted heart josh lanyon

Haunted Heart by Josh Lanyon [Contemporary m/m] ( A | BN | K | S | G )

Readers of earlier Lanyon stories will find themselves in recognizable territory, but this book is definitely the beginning of something new. Flynn Ambrose is living in a big drafty house in Connecticut, going through the inheritance left to him by his Great-Uncle Winston. Winston left a museum full of antiques and collectibles, some of it valuable and all of it strange. When a Regency mirror starts housing a ghostly something-or-other, Flynn seeks help from the reassuringly strong and solid tenant he also inherited, writer Kirk Murdoch. Reluctant at first, Kirk warms to Flynn and becomes as intrigued by the ghost in the mirror as Flynn is.

I purposely didn’t read anything about this book before it was released. I read both the 2012 short stories and Blood Red Butterfly and enjoyed them all, but I was really looking forward to a new Lanyon book that was (a) longer and more developed; and (b) in the style of his mysteries, which I enjoy the most of all his writing. I am not a huge fan of ghost stories, but I figured I would trust him on this, and I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’ve read The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks, some of the setup and characterizations will be recognizable, but it’s a quite different book overall. For one thing, the ghost aspect is front and center and real. More importantly, though, Flynn in this book feels more complex and mature to me than Perry did (I know a lot of Lanyon fans love Ghost, but while I enjoyed it I don’t return to it like I do some of his other books). And since the story is told from Flynn’s perspective, we really get into his head.

Sirius: Yes, The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks was my least favorite book by this writer. I know that’s his standard way to make a character vulnerable — either with grief or with illness (not just his, of course, but he uses it often) — but I felt he way overdid it with Perry (funny, I do not even remember what the issue was, but I do remember that I felt he was helpless, and damsels in distress annoy me). I liked Flynn much more than Perry.

Sunita: I’ve read a number of books lately that feature protagonists who are grappling with depression, darkness, and/or suicide. Reading this reminded me of how nuanced Lanyon’s treatment of characters with physical and mental difficulties can be, and how unusual this is in romance, whether mainstream or m/m. Where other writers will pile on the angst, Lanyon goes the subtle route. The reader knows right away that Flynn is mourning the loss of his partner, who was also quite young, but we don’t know exactly what happened, and the revelations of what Flynn has gone through since are parceled out slowly and indirectly.

Sirius: I felt Flynn’s grief as clearly as you did. One of the reasons I like his books is because I always admire how much Lanyon can achieve with so few words. That quote about snow on Alan’s eyelashes make me choke up a little.

If I closed my eyes I could remember snowflakes in Alan’s eyelashes and his breath warm against my face …

I like a variety of writing styles – I can admire, let’s say, Carole Cummings for her lush writing style in Aisling and her other series, and I was tasting the words on my tongue when I was reading Ash’s musings in Alexis Hall’s Glitterland, but I also love the restraint Lanyon shows in his works, especially because he can achieve so much with very few words.

Sunita: Flynn’s grief is understandable, and we know his previous actions flow from that, so his parents’ and doctors’ worries about him make sense. It’s only toward the end of the book that we realize the full extent of his unhappiness, and it hits like a punch. The ending is a pretty tenuous HFN, and you really have to trust the author to be able to pull off a genuine HEA over the next three installments.

Sirius: That’s a really good point you make about trusting the author. I thought the ending was perfect for this book. Considering Flynn’s state of mind and the state of his emotions, I thought anything happier than what we have at the end would have felt way too soon and would not ring true to me, but definitely I have no doubt that we will get the genuine happy ending at the end of the series and this is only because I trust the author. Otherwise I would have wondered whether the series would end with another solution which is also clearly hinted at.

Sunita: I agree. An HEA would have been jarring here. That said, this isn’t an overwhelmingly depressing book. Flynn is deeply unhappy, but he still has a sense of humor, and his youthful perspective (he’s in his early to mid-twenties) works to make some of his pronouncements feel less certain than he thinks they are. For example, when he asserts that he’ll never be attracted to anyone again, my reaction was that while he might believe that about himself, I didn’t. And I was right!

Sirius: Flynn felt like a very strong person even if his main determination was to do something I really do not want him to do (this is not resolved at the end of the book yet). But I also thought that his very determined pursuit of the ghost’s story showed him as somebody who could be very goal oriented.

Sunita: The plot is fairly straightforward. As Flynn and Kirk puzzle out the provenance of the mirror and try to understand why Flynn seems to be the conduit, they get to know each other better, gingerly become attracted to and closer to each other, and eventually travel to the original home of the mirror. This section opens out the story and includes relevant historical information without info-dumping. There is also a scene involving characters from an earlier novel that Lanyon fans will recognize, but which new readers don’t need to have read in order for the scene to make sense.

This story is entirely Flynn’s; we don’t really learn much about Kirk except through the ways he interacts with Flynn. What we learn about him is appealing, and Flynn’s interest in him is understandable. By the end of the novella it’s clear that he has his own, somewhat troubled history, but this is not a story about two damaged people being made whole through True Love (at least not so far, it isn’t). I’m hoping that future installments fill out Kirk’s character and develop the relationship, and given Lanyon’s track record, I’m pretty sure they will.

Sirius: Yes, I do agree that we do not know much about Kirk’s character yet and I do hope that he will fill out in the next books. My thoughts were wondering along the lines – eh, so he’s dark, brave, kind, and mysterious. I like his canvas, and I am sure we will see his depths in the next books of the series, but so far I do not feel like I know him well yet. We know that he is a good and honorable guy, of course, because he helps Flynn. We know that he has a sense of humor, and we know that he has a sense of adventure. I mean, we do not know the full extent of what he was doing in the army, but surely at least part of the reason he joined was because he is an adventurous person? I also thought that since in fiction the books the character likes often help us to to learn more about his personality, the fact that he seemed to like Jules Verne also indicates that he likes adventure.

What did you think of the mystery in the story?

Sunita: For a writer who is known for his mysteries, I thought this was more “ghost story” than standard mystery. The investigation was interesting sociologically but not exactly a mystery, at least not in the genre sense to me. I’m not really that up on ghost mythology, but I assumed that the ghost wanted the truth to come out, and haunting Flynn was part of that. The resolution to her story was almost anticlimactic, I thought; not because it wasn’t interesting, but getting to the end was more important than the end.

Sirius: Ah, I think you nailed it. I was a little confused as to what I felt when I was reading about the investigation. I mean, I was interested, I thought it fitted the story, but it did not really feel like a mystery. So what genre do you think this series belong to? Paranormal romance?

Sunita: Oh, good question. It feels like a classic ghost-story setup, which I guess falls within paranormal romance. So yes, but emphasis on the ghost, since everything else is non-paranormal. Plus, there is the mystery part. So paranormal-mystery-romance? With an HFN? Or, let’s just call it a Lanyon. ;) Whatever we call it, I give it a grade of B+.

Sirius: I agree, a grade of B+ for me as well.

 

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