A journal of the books I read or would like to read.
Sunday, September 09, 2012
STRANGER IN THE ROOM - review and giveaway!
STRANGER IN THE ROOM by Amanda Kyle Williams: The second novel in a series is critical; after all, a good first novel could be a fluke. The more I like the first in a series, the more I hope the second lives up to its potential, and I am pleased to say that Amanda Kyle Williams more than delivers with her second Keye Street thriller, STRANGER IN THE ROOM. If you missed THE STRANGER YOU SEEK, Keye is a disgraced FBI profiler-turned-P.I., her brilliant career derailed by alcoholism, who gets pulled in as an APD consultant when a serial killer terrorizes Atlanta. Keye is funny but competent, deeply flawed, and self-aware. She's as funny as early Stephanie Plum, but in more intense thrillers (think Karin Slaughter, early Patricia Cornwell). It's an addictive combination. Thrillers are often relentless (which is the point, of course -- to keep the reader turning pages) in gore, action, and suspense, but in a twist on the usual thriller formula, Williams has used her heroine's abundant flaws to inject substantial humor into her books. The suspense is still intense; humor simply provides another layer of enjoyment.
Atlanta is practically a character in STRANGER IN THE ROOM. Having made it through a scorching summer, lines like "Atlanta's smoldering summer had dropped down around us like a burning building" really resonate with me. Keye observes of her private investigation business, "Missing persons, surveillance, bond enforcement, and process serving keeps the cash flowing when business slows to a crawl over the winter holidays. But when Atlanta starts to heat up and the glaring southern sun sets our bloodstreams ablaze, when the clothes get skimpy and overworked servers stagger out with trays of frosty pitchers at packed pavement cafes, my phone gets busy." Details of locations and mouth-watering descriptions of restaurant offerings (more on this later) add to the authenticity. Keye struggles with sobriety, and Williams treats alcoholism with great sensitivity and understanding, even as Keye cracks jokes about it.
STRANGER IN THE ROOM starts out with Keye's troubled cousin, Miki, asking for help; she's being stalked. Keye isn't sure how much of Miki's account to believe, but when a body turns up in Miki's house, Keye is convinced. Miki is possibly more screwed-up than Keye. "'Are you all right?' she asked, then went on without giving me time to answer. 'Oh, right. The alcohol thing. What's the big deal, anyway? I won't let you get wasted. Just order a fucking drink.' 'That's the worst idea I've heard all day.' She reached into her bag and withdrew a tiny glass vial with a black cap. 'I've got some coke. Would a line help?' That's my Miki, always thinking of others." Meanwhile, APD Lieutenant Rauser has asked for Keye's insight in a serial killer case. These two mysteries make up the main plot, with Keye's private investigation business providing the subplots. One is a bail bonds case that provides quality comic relief (and by "comic relief," I mean, "uncontrollable laughter"), and the other takes Keye up to rural Big Knob, where she investigates odd happenings at a crematorium. The Big Knob case introduces one of my favorite characters in any book in any genre: the politely racist Mrs. Stargell. In a less nuanced novel, Mrs. Stargell would have been a one-dimensional character to hate, but Williams rounds her out nicely, and she steals every scene she's in. I kind of hope future cases take Keye back to Big Knob.
Keye's supporting cast is fantastic. Williams is skilled at crafting complex characters, no matter how few words they have in the book. Keye's relationship with Rauser continues to develop in interesting and unexpected ways. He's a great cop: "'Listen to me, people,' Rauser snapped. 'All that DNA shit, it's gonna be great in court. But it's good old-fashioned police work that closes cases. Don't ever forget that.'" But he has a goofy side, too: "Rauser's hand went to his weapon, then slid away when we saw the gray tabby from next door pulling himself up and over the fence. He balanced on top for a couple of seconds, then jumped to the ground and sauntered over to the patch of neglected garden. He dug around, sniffed, turned a few circles, sniffed, dug, then laid back his ears and did his business. 'Little bastard,' Rauser growled, watching the cat with Wile E. Coyote eyes. 'Fucker's looking right at us.' I had to bite my lip and look away. Rauser had unintentionally built a giant cat box in his yard."
Her coworker, stoner savant Neil, is hilarious and strangely competent. He and Keye exchange great childish banter that brings out Keye's silly side. "Neil had his electronic devices out, and he was balancing a hotel coffee mug. 'This is going to be one of those three-hour tour things, isn't it? Big Knob's the Minnow and you're Ginger and I'm the professor and we're never getting off the island.' 'You see me as Ginger? Really?' I glanced at myself in the rearview."
I'm tempted to quote all the passages I marked that made me laugh out loud (and, in one case, literally slap my knee), but I don't want to spoil the joy for new readers. I'm also tempted to quote all the passages about food (seriously, don't read Williams on an empty stomach!), but I'll just give one example: "She grew poblano peppers in her own garden and stuffed them with cheese and cubed acorn squash she'd sauteed in garlic. She skewered fresh peaches on cinnamon sticks and bathed them in bourbon and honey on the grill until their meat was sweet and smoky. She filled tiny pastry cups with goat cheese and homemade lime curd and glass pitchers with sweet iced tea and fresh thyme. Southern cooking gets a bad rap. But when it's done right, it's a beautiful thing." Besides their other attributes, I think Williams's books could be the foundation for a spectacular cookbook.
STRANGER IN THE ROOM stands well on its own, but I can't possibly recommend skipping THE STRANGER YOU SEEK. Do yourself a favor and read both. Quoting extensively in a review is the highest compliment for me: it means the writing is so good, it's best to let it speak for itself.
Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher and purchased my own hardcover edition.
Giveaway: Oh, look! I purchased an extra copy of STRANGER IN THE ROOM in honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Want to win? Leave a comment on this post with some way to contact you, and I'll draw a winner next Monday, September 17. Contest open worldwide. For extra entries (one per action - leave a comment with a link): post a link to this contest on your blog, tweet it, otherwise publicly share it.
My review of THE STRANGER YOU SEEK
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