Reviewer Adam Woog looks at Seattle writer Robin Oliveira’s engrossing “Winter Sisters” and Karen Cleveland’s swift and sure-footed debut, “Need to Know.”

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Two books featuring strong, compassionate female protagonists feature in this week’s selection of crime fiction.

Seattle writer Robin Oliveira’s engrossing “Winter Sisters” (Viking, 416 pp., $27) is being marketed as a thriller, and (like any good story) has a mystery at its core.

But it’s really much more: a meaty historical novel that sensitively addresses issues — among them gender equality, the rights of minors, corruption and child abuse — that plague us even today.

Set in upstate New York in the 1870s, it’s a sequel to Oliveira’s “My Name is Mary Sutter” (though it works fine as a stand-alone). Sutter is a physician in the days when a “lady doctor” was often treated with suspicion and/or scorn.

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A devastating whiteout blizzard has led to the deaths of a couple and the disappearance of their two young daughters, Emma and Claire. For weeks the authorities, along with Sutter and her physician husband, search in vain.

Then the traumatized girls reappear on the doctors’ doorstep, telling a tale of imprisonment and abuse. A shocking fact — that the age of consent for females then was only 10 — is among the circumstances leading to an electrifying courtroom drama.

Robin Oliveira will read from and sign “Winter Sisters” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or; and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or

Karen Cleveland’s “Need to Know” (Ballantine, 304 pp., $26) is a swift and sure-footed debut about a CIA analyst torn between family and country. (Cleveland is herself a former CIA analyst.)

Four kids, a loving husband, a nice house, a meaningful job tracking Russian sleeper agents — Vivian is doing well. Until, that is, she stumbles on the fact that her husband has since childhood been … well, a Russian sleeper agent.

And so she goes through the looking glass. Matt insists, now that his cover is blown, that Vivian out him. But whose side is he on? How much of what he’s told her all these years was a lie? As a professional, she’s obliged to expose him — but as a mom and wife the road is hardly clear.

The theme of patriotism versus family love — everyday domestic life rubbing up against the drama of espionage — keeps the story moving steadily toward a surprising (if open-ended and not entirely plausible) conclusion.