****Five out of Five Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
In a previous review I mentioned that I could count on two hands the number of series that I had read where each book in the series rocked my world. After reading the latest installment of The Huntress Series, Bitter Moon, I will say this: I can count on one hand the number of series where each book not only rocked my world, but where the sum total of the books manages to be something even better than the individual parts. I hope that this exemplifies how much I enjoyed this book because I consider this a must read book for readers of this website.
For those of you who have not read my earlier reviews The Huntress Series is basically the story of Cara Lindstrom, a young woman whose entire family, save herself, was killed by a serial killer when Cara was a child. Forever changed by this, Cara, for lack of a better word, becomes a vigilante who kills men who prey upon women. Matthew Roarke, an FBI agent and former profiler who specializes in serial killers, becomes aware of, and eventually obsessed with Cara.
The previous chapter is a kind of Reader’s Digest condensed novel version of the first three books, but it gives you a basic idea of what you need to know about the fourth book in this series. Bitter Moon starts with Roarke, now on leave, trying to figure out what to do with his life. Cara’s escape and a phone message from a detective connected to Cara’s past draw Roarke into an investigation of an unsolved murder that could hold the key that solves the question of what made Cara into the woman she is today. The story splits into two narratives; one dealing with Cara at age 14, as she confronts the implacable personification of evil that she simply refers to as It for the first time since her family was killed and the other about Roarke investigating the same events in the present. The author, Alexandra Sokoloff, gives a master class in plotting as she flawlessly weaves the two stories together, generating an extraordinary amount of suspense as we see Cara becoming The Huntress as she struggles to defend herself and and revenge two other girls, one who committed suicide and another who died after being attacked by a serial rapist and murderer.
Roarke is shown in a new light, as he has to act without the official might of the FBI behind him, but his task is small compared with what Cara has to overcome, and it is in this portrayal where Ms. Sokoloff truly shines. Just out of a maximum-security juvenile detention center (aka prison) and living in a group foster home, Cara, with a few exceptions, the group home director Ms. Sharonda, and a nun named Mother Doctor, is completely alone. Yet Cara finds the strength not only to survive, but she decides to try and seek justice for all of the girls who have been wronged in a world where all of the odds seem to be stacked against them.
Ms. Sokoloff depicts Cara’s journey with astounding grace and courage, and with a righteous anger against a system that seems not only broken, but almost irredeemably flawed. Yet for all of this Cara’s story, and Roake’s as well, is one of hope, because both of them refuse to see wrongs being done. Both of them have decided to act.
If all of this is not enough Bitter Moon is a absolute nail-biting thriller. The twisting plot and the propulsive story kept me flipping the pages while Ms. Sokoloff’s prose made me slow down and savor each page, particularly in the scenes where Cara finds peace in the desert landscapes of California. Seeing Cara, a young girl alone in an uncaring world, finding peace and solace in Nature, gave me hope. And that is what makes Bitter Moon such an amazing novel. Ms. Sokoloff is unflinching in her portrayal of a world full of injustice and unfairness, not as long as women like Cara are out there, there is hope.
BEF: In our first interview we spoke of how ambitious a project The Huntress series has been. When you conceived it did you know where the story was going to go, or did it grow organically?
AS: The storyline for the series coalesced in a thunderclap moment when I was listening to Lee Child speak at the San Francisco Bouchercon (after I’d just heard Val McDermid and Denise Mina in conversation, which set the scene….). At that moment I knew the action of the first two books, roughly. But beyond that, I had no clue. It’s grown as I get deeper into the characters and the world.
BEF: One of the things I have really enjoyed in The Huntress series is the wonderful plot structure. In Bitter Moon Roarke is investigating events that happened 16 years ago to Cara, and ends up as an investigation that is taking place in the present. How did you execute that idea? Did you write Cara’s story, then Roarke’s, or did you bounce back and forth?
AS: Thank you! You don’t know how relieved I am to have pulled it off this time. I was definitely bouncing back and forth between the two. And some parts of it took ages to get right. It took lots and lots of drafts and the help of a REALLY good copyeditor. Now, of course, it feels like it was always that way. Hah.
BEF: In Huntress Moon I saw Roarke as a kind of a gateway character; the story starts from his point of view, but it was always Cara’s story. In Bitter Moon Roarke is literally following Cara’s lead. Can you comment on how the narrative has evolved?
AS: Roarke is definitely a gateway character. I was a screenwriter before I was a novelist, and working in hyper-sexist Hollywood I got very clever about telling stories that had ostensibly male leads but were really all about these fascinating women. Similarly in the Huntress series, Roarke is the male gaze on Cara, but – he’s a very “woke” kind of guy. It doesn’t take him long at all to get terribly conflicted about having to hunt her. And that is a wonderfully painful moral and erotic tension.
But that dynamic played out, intensifying over the first three books, and at that point I just thought everyone – Roarke, my readers, me – needed a break from it. I toyed with doing a prequel but I thought it would be so much more interesting to do a dual timeline that was actually about the two of them solving the same case at the same time. Because, you know, I have to be as hard on myself as I possibly can be or I don’t feel like I’m doing my job.
The separation in time allowed Roarke to get even deeper into Cara’s life, her mission, and her head, but in a completely non-sexual way. Because if knowing someone is the ultimate intimacy, isn’t knowing them as a child the most sacred kind of intimacy of all?
BEF: The landscapes in the series are wonderfully evocative, particularly Cara’s relationship with the desert. How important do you think a sense of place is in your work?
AS: Place is huge. The whole series is about California – about the West Coast, but primarily about California. And something Roarke and Cara have in common is their profound connection with nature and the environment. It’s kind of the only thing that keeps either of them relatively sane.
(Okay, right, “sane” probably isn’t a word I can use re: Cara! But the desert is a place of deep spirituality and it’s very much a part of who she is.)
Place is one of the most important aspects of all my books, and scripts. My background in theater and film taught me that setting is an external manifestation of the characters and themes of the story.
BEF: Cara is an amazing character. To me she seems like a bundle of contradictions that rings true. One one hand she is entirely present in the physical world, noticing details like the floor-plans of buildings, and exit-routes, and on the other she can sense evil and has a quasi-mystical relationship with the moon. How many of these characteristics are invented, and how many are like those found in women who have suffered from trauma similar to Cara?
AS: Cara is physically present and aware in the way that any law enforcement professional has to be. She and Roarke are twins that way (and many others). Trauma can produce that kind of hyper-vigilance in survivors, for sure. But law enforcement professionals are also hyper-aware of bad intent in people – it’s called Blue Sense (or in the UK – Copper Sense.)
And you’re right, the other side of her is that mystical connection with earth, nature, the moon, the tides. She’s a pagan, she’s a witch, she’s a goddess. Which all women actually are, if they stop and feel it – and it doesn’t have anything to do with trauma. It’s who we are, at the core of our beings. That part of her was her salvation from trauma.
BEF: The world of The Huntress series is violent. Cara has suffered enormous trauma, and the women and children she protects do as well, yet your portrayal of that is never gratuitous, which is one of the things I most admire about these books. How do you walk that tightrope? And why is it so important?
AS: It’s pretty easy not to be gratuitous because I don’t step into the point of view of sadists, which a troubling percentage of films, TV shows and books do. I couldn’t care less about getting into the Reaper’s head, for example. I loathe scenes like that in books and film, from the POV of the male serial killer or hit man – those are almost always laughably ridiculous psychologically, and usually verge on torture porn, or explicitly become torture porn. Cara doesn’t get any pleasure at all from killing – it’s just something she has to do. So the reader, who experiences these things from her point of view, doesn’t get to experience pleasure from the violence, either.
And the rest of the violence is about showing, in as stark but also as brief a way as possible, the horrendous systemic and individual abuses of women and children in our society. When you focus on the victims, gratuitous doesn’t come into the picture. It’s horrifying. It’s tragic. And hopefully it’s enraging enough to inspire action.
BEF: One of the central themes of The Huntress series is about the way that the criminal justice system deals with rape, prostitution, human trafficking and the juvenile justice system. I know that you are a writer, and not a politician, but what suggestions can you make so that we as a society can address these crucial problems?
AS: We could have not elected a sexual predator to the presidency. That would have helped a whole fucking lot. We had the chance to elect an extraordinarily competent and experienced politician who has made it her life’s work to advocate for and empower women and children. Someone who GETS it. Instead, we have someone who DOES it himself. The pussy-grabber-in-chief.
Now we’re faced with having to work about a million times harder. But it’s not an optional fight. And now it’s not going to happen through our “leaders” so WE have to step up.
So pick a cause that fights violence against women and children. Contribute to it, promote it. I have a list of foundations and organizations I support on my website, here (http://axsokoloff.blogspot.com/2016/10/take-action-against-sexual-assault-and.html trafficking): rescue organizations, anti-child exploitation organizations, rape and incest hotlines, etc.
And never, never allow anyone to be sexually harassed, threatened or exploited in your presence. More than ever now. Speak out. Fight. Don’t give predators a free pass.
In the meantime, I’m afraid Cara has a whole lot more work to do.
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***** Five out of Five Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
Once again I am stepping into fairly-uncharted territory by reviewing the second book in a series without having done the same for the first one. This book however, Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley is so good that I decided that it was worth it. The first book in this series, The Rook, ( which is every bit as good as it’s sequel, and I heartily urge you to read it), is a supernatural thriller with a tight plot, great characters, and it managed to be tense, scary and often surprisingly funny, often all at the same time. It is the story of Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas, who wakes up in a London park with no memory, suffering from a serious beating, and surrounded by dead men in suits wearing latex gloves. In her pocket os a letter from her former self, warning her that she she is in serious danger and offering her two choices; run away and live a peaceful, happy life, or return to her former identity and found out who betrayed her, and gave her amnesia. She chooses the latter, and discovers that she is a high-ranking member of The Checquy, A Rook, in Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service, a secret organization of people with metahuman powers, Myfanwy included. Aided only by the letters from her former self Myfanwy returns to her job, which is to protect Great Britain from supernatural horrors, and battle their nemesis, The Grafters, a scientific Brotherhood of super-surgeons who manipulate flesh and bone and DNA with astounding results, whom they have been battling for centuries.
Without ruining The Rook I will say that Stiletto begins where The Rook ends, with The Checquy and The Grafters trying to end the Cold War that they have been waging for centuries. We start by meeting Pawn Felicity Clement, a member of one of the Checquy elite strike teams, and Odette Leliefeld, a young woman who is a member of the Grafter aristocracy. Felicity is tasked with guarding Odette while the two secret societies meet to try and arrange a truce to their long-running battle. Needless to say there are a lot of people on both sides who are wary of the peace treaty; imagine the KGB and the CIA trying to bury the hatchet and merge. Members of both sides are still keeping secrets, and someone seems intent on not only sabotaging the negotiations but on killing Rook Thomas.
There is much, much more afoot than I can describe; the plot is like a set of nesting dolls, stories resting in other stories. Mr. O’Malley ‘s prose is smooth and he has a real knack for action sequences that are as clear as they are thrilling. His dialogue is fresh and often funny, and his inventiveness seemingly knows no bounds. Even in the most dire parts of Stiletto, when people are fighting for their lives, and sometimes failing, their is an almost manic sense of originality. I can imagine Mr. O’Malley almost cackling as he unspools one crazy idea after another, and in such a polished way that it still seems real.
The same can be said of the characters; there are a ton of them, and most of them have astounding abilities, but they all seem grounded as the people you meet when sharing an elevator ride. The three main characters, Myfanwy, Felicity and Odette and sterling examples. While each has astounding special abilities they are three-dimensional, with real-world problems and concerns. I have to give a special nod to the author for making his three leads women, and kick-ass women, without once ever making a big deal about it. Time and time again in Stiletto there are scenes where these three women are performing above and beyond the call, and I thought of that wonderful quote about why Ginger Rogers was so great; she did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high-heels. To top it off not a single one of them seems to looking for, or needing a man to make their lives complete. It’s the icing on the cake of a book that you really need to read.