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Red on the Run by K.M. Hodge

Red on the Run is the first of three books in a series by K.M. Hodge, all of which involve a shady organization called The Syndicate. They seek power and influence through violence, intimidation, blackmail and other nefarious means. They are NOT. NICE. PEOPLE. Not so unusual, so far.

But then, we meet Alex and Katherine, our protagonists in this volume. K.M. could have stuck more closely to the trope, but instead, she gives us damaged people. And damaged people are always more interesting.

Katherine is married to Charles, an abusive and violent man who, it turns out, is involved in The Syndicate. She’s also a recovering alcoholic. Alex is a recovering sex addict with PTSD, in part stemming from his failure to protect a young woman he loved while on deployment in the Middle East. Katherine is an FBI agent, assigned to crack the case on The Syndicate, and she has explosive information. Alex is a CIA agent, working undercover as an FBI agent, and has been assigned as her partner, and to protect the information she has. Their first meeting is in a bar, and sparks fly. These characters, and a cast of supporting members, put us on a roller coaster that take the reader on a ride of a story involving life, death, love, loss and family bonds.

Ms. Hodge starts the pace of the suspense story a little slowly, gradually speeding up to the point (around 30% on my Kindle) where the story hooked me in solidly. The relationship between Alex and Kate builds in intensity, encounters hurdles and obstacles, and begins to resolve, only to take us around a turn once more and start the slow and inevitable climb to another breakneck loop around the track of this story. The effort to unravel The Syndicate follows a similar track, with both story lines intersecting and weaving, then splitting apart, then coming back together.

I always have a few thoughts after reading a book about how the story could have been strengthened, or a character rounded. In the case of this book, there are two places where I think some subtle changes could have been made.

The first is in Katherine’s alcoholism. Although it’s mentioned in the beginning of the story that she goes to meetings with Charles, I think that a few more mentions could have helped strengthen the readers’ understanding of her empathy when Alex reveals his own addiction. As it reads now, the disclosure of her own substance problems has happened so far before there’s a second discussion of them, that it almost seems “out of the blue.”

Second, Ms. Hodge is highly skilled at creating tension and expectation in her story. But I think that often, there are “mini” arcs of that tension and expectation that don’t result in a BIG EVENT (or even a kind of small event). It’s the writing style. But, as above, a slightly lighter hand with this could make a big impact when the several major twists, turns and events really DO explode on the page.

I will absolutely be reading the next two books in this series, and adding the author’s Texas Wife series to my reading list, as well. This is an author to watch.

The Kindle edition is available now. Print is due out soon.

Red on the Run, on Amazon.com

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Zelda’s Cut

Published in 2000, I first read Zelda’s Cut by Philippa Gregory around 6-7 years ago. I had been an avid reader of all things Philippa Gregory wrote, and decided to start looking at her “backlist” books — books that were no longer being marketed or, in this case, sold new.

This is a tough book to describe. For starters, it’s a contemporary thriller. But it doesn’t read like a thriller. It reads like a nice, ordinary story. At first. And it gets stranger and stranger as you continue to read.

Isobel, the main protagonist, is a woman in mid-life, dissatisfied with many of her circumstances and pressured to earn more income due to her husbands’ chronic, debilitating illness. Doesn’t seem much like a character description from a thriller, does it? Philip is her husband. A bit older than her, with a past successful career that ended when he became too ill to continue to work. His illness is very unclear as to its origin or its prognosis. But somehow, having a swimming pool will help. Troy is her agent. Young, assertive, smart and sexually ambiguous, with a life that includes cocaine, champagne and butch men. And then there’s Murray, the swimming pool salesman who befriends Philip. Still, really not the raw materials for a thriller.

Until, in an effort to earn more money, Isobel and Troy create Zelda Vane, a glamourous and wealthly woman, who writes steamy bestsellers. When Isobel dresses up as her, she starts to discover a world beyond the obligations that have run her life for a decade, and things begin to spin out of control. Troy seems genuinely intrigued by Zelda. But then also, his friendship with Isobel keeps encountering moments that foreshadow some other agenda. And then, maybe a completely different kind of manipulation and deception. Or maybe not.

Murray’s friendship with Philip also starts to go down a road that feels uncomfortable. One can tell there’s something “off”. The friendship seems like a manipulation for a better sale. But then, maybe not. Philip’s illness seems to improve, with no real explanation other than that he’s found a purpose. So perhaps Murray truly is a friend. And then, maybe there’s still a completely different kind of manipulation and deception.

Each of these characters is also deeply dependent — some times on only one of the others, and sometimes on more than one. And they all struggle for independence in those relationships as well. This is, above all, a book with complex characters and relationships. The reader is left to draw many of their own conclusions about both.

If you’ve read Philippa Gregory’s more well known historical fiction, you’ll understand that she often writes about the darker side of a characters’ personality. In her Wideacre trilogy, she explored themes of murder, incest and psychosis, over the course of several generations. In Zelda’s Cut, Ms. Gregory explores themes of self-sacrifice, deception, manipulation, dependence and independence. The book is a methodical, but fairly fast, exploration of a journey from idealistic motivation to self-interested rash behavior.

I didn’t like the characters, but their complexity made them interesting and readable nonetheless. I found most of the circumstances plausible, except at the end, where I was (unfortunately) disappointed. Each decision, each experience the characters had led, plausibly, to the next but the overall result was that Isobel wound up going “down the rabbit hole” and into a life that had a dark side to it that was both seductive and terrifying.

I wanted to know what would happen to these characters, these people who were making bad decisions, and whose paths had led them so far away from the types of people they THOUGHT they were at first. Unfortunately, the ending left me rather flat. While the major plotlines were resolved, I felt confused by how some of the story was left. I think I would have preferred more exploration of how these characters ended up where they did, than simply KNOWING that they ended up where they did.

I do recommend Zelda’s Cut. Partly because it’s so different from Ms. Gregory’s other books and also because I so rarely find a book that I enjoy, where I dislike the characters themselves. Let me know what you think!

Check out this book on Goodreads: Zelda’s Cut http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/252503.Zelda_s_Cut

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