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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:  Bad Influence by KA Mitchell

REVIEW: Bad Influence by KA Mitchell

Bad-InfluenceDear KA Mitchell,

You’ve written some of my favourite books in the genre so I was excited to read your newest release, even though the Bad in Baltimore series has been a bit hit or miss for me. I’m not sure the book would work as a stand alone read.  Other couples from the series – particularly Eli and Quinn and Jamie and Gavin – are a big part of this story.

Jordan “Silver” Barnett has been a minor secondary character in the series – he’s a friend of Eli’s; they met at a shelter a few years ago. They have things in common. Both were kicked out by their families after they came out.  Silver (who has silver grey eyes and white blond hair, hence the nickname) left his home in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, after his parents sent him to “pray away the gay camp”. The conditions were cruel and he still bears the psychic scars from being shut in the tiny “reflection room”.  He escaped from the camp and went to his boyfriend, Zebediah Harris, who rejected him. 17 year old Silver hitched a ride to Baltimore – exchanging sex for the privilege – and ended up hustling on the streets to survive.  He had no ID, was under age anyway and was terrified his parents would find him and send him back to the camp.  After a while he stopped hustling, moving on to the somewhat ‘safer’ work of ‘modelling’ – aka porn.   Unfortunately, now at age 20, Silver is HIV positive.  He has only recently been diagnosed and he is terrified of passing the virus on to anyone.   He now works for cash under the table at a restaurant but he doesn’t have enough money for an apartment of his own and sleeps in a rented room in a shabby dwelling.

The story is told from Silver’s deep third person POV so I was immediately sympathetic to him.  His reaction, when he heard that Zebediah Harris was a friend of Quinn’s was to panic and run. He carries an incredible amount of anger toward Zeb.  Zeb was the only one who loved him truly but when Silver really needed him, he didn’t come through. My impression was that Silver didn’t quite blame Zeb for everything which came after but certainly Zeb’s rejection, added to that of his parents’ and his experiences in Baltimore have meant he is not trusting, he feels very isolated and he has few friends. He holds back, expecting people to crap on him because that has been his experience.  Seeing his friends happily coupled, he is jealous of their connection and feels further isolated (the “third” or “fifth wheel”).

Zeb recognises Silver and when the book begins, he follows Silver to where he is hanging out with some hustlers he used to know.  Silver is not there to sell his body; he’s just shooting the breeze but when the police come along, they assume Silver is soliciting Zeb and he gets arrested – and Zeb, because he can’t keep his mouth shut and pisses the police off, gets arrested too.  The big problem for Silver is the fake ID he’s using and that lands him in a ton of trouble.  He’s facing a year in jail and suddenly, life, which was ordinary before, looks desperately shitty.

So, Silver starts off as very sympathetic.  I was so deep in his POV that it wasn’t until Zeb told Silver a few home truths that the proverbial light went on over my head.

And it changed everything.

When Zeb and Silver met, Silver (then Jordan) was only 16.  He lied to Zeb, who was 22 and a teacher at another school in the district and told him he was 19.   When they were found out, Silver was sent to the pray away the gay camp and Zeb faced 10 years in jail and being listed on the sex offenders registry.  So it really casts a new light on Zeb’s reaction to Silver when he turned up, running away from the camp and  begging Zeb to run off with him.

Because the first part is told from Silver’s POV, it is absolutely clear that Zeb didn’t take advantage of Silver. That it was all consensual and, if anything, Silver was the seducer rather than the seduced.  Nevertheless, and to his credit, Zeb feels incredible guilt over the relationship.  He feels like a sexual predator.

Gavin (who is filthy rich) pays for a lawyer for Silver and the lawyer recommends Silver study for his GED and have a regular place to live and clean up his act before the court date – this will increase his chances of avoiding a jail sentence.  Zeb is a teacher and he helps Silver study for the test – which is really not much more than a handy excuse for the pair to spend time together given that Quinn is also a teacher.  The book doesn’t even try to disguise this though so I didn’t mind it.

The blurb suggests that Silver has a plan to exact revenge on Zeb.  I was glad that this didn’t really go anywhere – especially because I wasn’t at all sure that Zeb had done anything wrong in sending Silver away that night.

For me, the initial relationship between the pair was so messed up, it made it very difficult to accept them as a functional couple and believe in a HEA.  There were some things which made me feel a little better about it – they did confront the issues of their pasts and they did have a few difficult conversations and gave each other some hard truths.  They did forgive each other.  And, Silver, to his credit, did question his own responsibility in the underage relationship with Zeb.  Zeb had been doing his own penance from since before the book began. I didn’t think of Zeb as a sexual predator, which was something.  However, while the relationship was consensual, it was also inappropriate and it was difficult for me to accept a relationship which had begun on such terms as ever being healthy.

The story does have Silver opening up to friends and his chosen family (Eli, Quinn, Gavin, Jamie, Kellan and Nate, Marco) and accepting them more deeply into his life, as well as improving his lot materially and physically.  Gavin does play a bit of a white knight which strained my credulity at times, even as I was happy he did the things which did so.  Unfortunately, in real life, I think a lot of gay homeless teens don’t have a Gavin and I was always aware of that as I read. (Your Author’s Note in the back of the book explicitly acknowledges this and there is an organisation named for donations - www.yesdropincenter.org – and you indicate that a portion of the profits from the book will be donated there).

Zeb and Silver definitely had connection and chemistry and they made every effort to be honest and open with each other but I wasn’t confident at the end that their HEA would stick.  Partly  it was because I didn’t feel enough time was spent showing them relating to one another as adults, talking and dealing with things. They did deal with some things but not enough for me to think the HEA was solid. And, partly it was because of my inherent concern about the origins of their relationship (and I just don’t think I could get over that). Then again, Silver was 17  before they had sex and in many places that is over the age of consent and Zeb was never his teacher.  I think, for me, it’s more about the… mess.  Can a relationship – that started off in such messy circumstances, such threatening and heightened emotional circumstances – can a relationship like that flourish?   It’s a hard sell for me and I was unconvinced here.  Silver seemed so very young throughout the whole book;  imagining him three or four years earlier made him, in my mind, a child.

I think Silver’s HIV status was well handled and I appreciated the insight (so much so that I actually went back and edited a book review from last year on my blog where I had clearly had my head up my bottom) but it fell away toward the end of the book – Zeb and Silver were just going to “deal” but I would have liked some more explicit discussion about their plan going forward.  Partly, this was because it was identified as such a big deal, such an important issue, early in the piece, I felt that it didn’t quite get the same status later on.

Your books usually have some pretty hot sex scenes (something I unashamedly like) but the tone here was… sweeter I think.  The sex comes later in the book than in a ‘standard’ KA Mitchell book.  When it does arrive however, it is hot but there is also that sweetness which I really enjoyed.

Silver forgot everything he knew about getting a guy off fast and hard. He clung to Zeb’s hips, and Zeb’s hand slid through his hair. It wasn’t Silver giving a blow job, it was them doing something together. A steady bob at their pace. Silver flicked his tongue not for effect but for a taste, sucked for the silky press on his palate, for the sound Zeb made when Silver swallowed around him.

I enjoyed parts of the book but in the end my hesitation about the central relationship meant that for me this book is a C.

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

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