Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses by Simon Rich
Little, Brown and Company: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316468893

Hits and Misses: Stories by Simon Rich is a very highly recommended humorous collection of eighteen short stories.
The various stories in this collection run the gamete from hilarious to satirical, from absurd to insightful, from audacious to circumspect. In the final analysis, however, they are all entertaining, while simultaneously pointing out some absurdities or proclivities of the human condition (especially related to writers, media, film work and even when the main protagonist isn't human) in a humorous manner. I thoroughly enjoyed every story in this collection. They were all hits for me.

Contents:
The Baby - A novelist begins competing with his unborn child for literary recognition.
Riding Solo: The Oatsy Story - Paul Revere's horse reveals the true story.
The Foosball Championship of the Whole Entire Universe - Two brothers are in an uneven competition where only one can be named the ultimate winner. 
Birthday Party - A man who takes a corporate job is confronted by his former selves over his choices.
The Book of Simon - Simon's life as compared to the Book of Job.
Relapse - An intervention is needed for an artist who thinks she wants to get back into the music business.
Hands - A Christian monk is tested  by his ethical deficits.
New Client -  An old-time talent agent signs up his last client.
The Great Jester: Havershire, a medieval court jester, tells his life's story.
Physician’s Lounge, April 1st: Dr. Metzger is no longer allowed to make April Fool's jokes.
Menlo Park, 1891 - Thomas Edison makes a film, Newark athlete.
Tom Hanks Stories - Tom Hanks is a nice guy.
Adolf Hitler: The GQ Profile - A gushing magazine profile of the dictator.
Any Person, Living or Dead -  Frequently asked questions about the new technology allows you to have dinner with anyone, living or dead.
Upward Mobility  - A powerful studio boss and his able assistant are before Saint Peter.
Dinosaur - A dinosaur writer is unable to keep up with the new writers.
Artist’s Revenge - A successful director forces his harshest critic to make a movie.
Stage 13 -  A young, unaccomplished director is offered the opportunity to make a movie with a unique star.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company via Netgalley.

Last Seen Alive

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas
HarperCollins: 6/26/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062843173

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas is a recommended psychological thriller.

Libby Hall and her husband Jamie both need a vacation. When there is an offer to swap houses with a couple, the Haywoods, they decide to take a chance on it. Libby and Jamie can't believe their luck when instead of a seaside cottage, they have swapped staying in their flat in Bath to stay at a lovely seaside estate in Cornwall. Soon, though, some disquieting discoveries are made and disconcerting events seem to be happening. When Jamie falls ill and then is rushed to the hospital, it marks the beginning of a change in their plans.

After they return to Bath, odd things begin to happen. It seems the Haywoods may have wished them harm. Libby is becoming paranoid, wondering if Jamie is keeping a secret from her, but Libby has some secrets she has been keeping from Jamie. This is just the beginning of the twists and turns that await you.

On the positive side for those who like psychological thrillers there are plenty of revelations and secrets to be revealed in this novel. It opens with a woman killing her husband, so you know something is going to go wrong. The writing is good; Douglas takes care to explore the psychological aspects of her characters, especially Libby's paranoia. She helps the reader gain some sympathy for Libby, as she is still privately grieving over her lost child after a miscarriage, which was caused by a very public heroic act.

Last Seen Alive started out interesting, but then it started to become a bit too unbelievable. And, again, when Libby wouldn't talk about and hadn't told Jamie what happened in Thailand (the novel will tell you) I already sussed out what was going to be the big reveal. What I really wondered was why would anyone leave personal information out and accessible to people they have never met when doing a house swap, especially if you are already generally suspicious and paranoid about people? Any why wouldn't you met these people first? This sort of marked the beginning of some rather forced revelations/twists.

In my final evaluation, Last Seen Alive would be a satisfying vacation read. Certainly it is a decent airplane book that will hold your attention, but you won't cry if you misplace it along the way.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Believe Me

Believe Me by JP Delaney
Penguin Random House: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101966310

Believe Me by JP Delaney is a highly recommended deceptive psychological thriller.

Claire Wright is a British actor who has come to America to take classes and hopefully find an acting job. Unfortunately she is here without a green card and can't legally work, but she needs money to live so she ends up working for a law firm specializing in divorce. Her job is to act as a high price hooker and catch on film for female clients their suspected unfaithful husbands negotiating for Claire's services. When one of her clients is found murdered in a hotel room, the husband, Patrick, who turned down Claire's proposition, is the main suspect.

Claire ends up working undercover for the police to try and get Patrick to confess to his murder of his wife. She is forced to do this or risk being deported as an illegal immigrant, but she also felt a connection with Patrick when she was trying to entrap him, so she agrees to the plan. The police also suspect that Patrick is a serial killer.

This is a fast-paced thriller packed full of unreliable narrators, especially Claire. I will freely admit that the plot is preposterous and purposefully deceptive - vital information is held back from the reader in order to create suspense. Does Delaney mess with your mind, withhold vital information, and make you wonder what the heck is going on in this novel? Yup.... and it was simultaneously kind of fun and annoying. I didn't see the ending coming at all.

Claire is an over-the-top unreliable narrator obsessed with acting and her roles. Claire (and the novel) approaches almost everything as a role, a part she is performing, which can also make you wonder what is real. The thing is that the story is very compelling and even when you are shaking your head saying "Really?" you will want to keep reading to see what happens next. I need to note that Patrick is a translator for Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857), a book of poetry dealing with evil and eroticism, which plays a major part in the novel and can be off putting.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House via Netgalley.

Whistle in the Dark

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey
HarperCollins: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062309716

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey is a highly recommended psychologically complex mystery.

Lana, the youngest daughter of Jen and Hugh Maddox, has just been found, bloody, bruised, and soaking wet after being missing for four days. Jen and fifteen-year-old Lana were taking a painting class in the country for a mother-daughter vacation when the teen went missing. Now Lana simple repeats to everyone who asks that she can't remember what happened to her. Lana, who is suffering from depression and full of teen angst, has been moody, difficult, and undergoing counseling after self-harming and a suicide attempt. So, was she abducted? How did she get hurt?

Jen needs to know the truth and begins to contemplate what happened before the vacation and reconstruct the events of the painting class. She begins her own desperate investigation into Lana's life, looking at her social media interactions, trying to find out what she is telling friends, looking through her sketchbooks, looking at the books in her room. Jen is full of anxiety about Lana, and her quest to find answers becomes an obsession.

Whistle in the Dark has created a quandary for me in terms of evaluating/rating it. On the one hand it is beautifully written literary novel that realistically explores in-depth the psychological reactions of a family and their interpersonal relationships in the midst of complex situation. Healey authentically captures the reactions of a truculent teen and a worried inquisitive, hyper-vigilant mother. The emotional turmoil roiling through the novel is exhausting, but compelling. The anxiety is palpable and oppressive. Both Jen and Lana are realistic, complicated characters and their relationship is thoroughly explored and examined through their interaction. The short chapters are all from Jen's point-of-view and vacillate back and forth in time.

On the other hand, early on in the novel I was quietly telling Jen (and the police) where to look for the answers. I was correct. If the central theme of the novel is the answer to the query "Where was Lana?" then it isn't a huge mystery because Healey provides the clues to answer the question early on in the novel. If the theme of the novel is the exploration and examination of the relationship between a troubled mentally ill teen and her mother, then it succeeded. However, it is rather slow moving in regards to both thematic questions.

Healey's Elizabeth is Missing was on my top ten novel of 2014, so I had high hopes (and high expectations) for Whistle in the Dark. The sheer excellence of the writing, the character development and the exploration complex psychological reactions met my expectations. The final resolution... not so much. Still it is a very good novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Watch the Girls

Watch the Girls by Jennifer Wolfe
Grand Central Publishing: 7/10/18
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781538760840

Watch the Girls by Jennifer Wolfe is a highly recommended debut mystery/thriller.

Liv Hendricks used to be Olivia Hill, a child star. She left the TV show she was on after the night her sister Miranda disappeared. That night their other sister, Gemma, also a child actor, called to be rescued from a party and the two sisters went out to pick her up. Something awful happened and only two sisters remained. Gemma continued on with her career, but Olivia changed her name to Liv and dropped out for over ten years. Now she was on a farcical, derivative show based on Scooby-Doo, but has just been let go. She hears about Shot in the Dark, a crowdfunding site, and offers to investigate a mystery for the highest bidder and share her findings in a webseries.

When she receives an anonymous offer of $20,000 from Red_Stranger to investigate the disappearance of four girls along Dag Road, now called the Dark Road. The donor identifies himself as filmmaker Jonas Kron, a man known for his dark, gory horror films. He lives in a California town called Stone's Throw, near the Dark Road, and filmed his movies in the area. His niece was one of the girls who disappeared. The disappearances have negatively impacted the town and its economy. Liv accepts the offer. She receives a clue when she arrives, to follow the white wolf, and her investigation begins, but then her sister Gemma shows up, and subsequently disappears, which adds a different urgency to her investigation.

The writing is good. Wolfe will hold your attention and entertain you while telling the story. The narrative mostly follows Liv in the present day, but there are flashbacks to the fateful night her sister Miranda disappeared and the events that lead up to this. Not everything in the plot is completely believable. Parts of the novel are a little over-the-top, just like many Hollywood productions, and the mood can jump from humorous to disturbing quite quickly.

Liv is a complicated character and well-developed. There is a reason for her excesses and her issues that comes to light at the end.  Liv is really the only well-developed character, as the others are more archetypes of certain caricatures. Admittedly, I had most of the mystery figured out early on in the novel, but Wolfe also had a few surprises that I didn't see coming. 

Watch the Girls is enjoyable and full of twists and action, but there were two drawbacks for me. First was Liv's promiscuity. It was bothersome enough to drop my rating down a star. I just wanted to see some mature, thoughtful behavior and better judgement from a character that I liked. In this day and age that is such a destructive choice. The second was the disturbing descriptions of sexual violence. (There could be some triggers for people in this one.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing via Netgalley.

The Pharaoh Key

The Pharaoh Key by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
Grand Central Publishing: 6/22/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455525829
Gideon Crew Series #5

The Pharaoh Key by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is a highly recommended final novel and fitting ending (?) to the Gideon Crew series.

Gideon Crew has a brain arteriovenous malformation or AVM, and has about two months left to live, however, he will remain strong and mobile right until the end so the doctor's advice is for him to live every minute the best way he can. He and his engineer colleague Manuel Garza have also discovered, after not being paid for months and no word of warning from their employer Eli Glinn that they no longer have a job with Effective Engineering Solutions, EES. Garza calls Crew telling him that they have a few hours to clear their belongings out of the office.

While gathering what they can, they discover that a code-breaking computer at EES, after working on it for almost five years, has cracked the code found on the centuries-old stone tablet, the Phaistos Disc. With some sleight of hand, the two smuggle out a copy of the findings on a flash drive. The two work on deciphering the data and agree to split the treasure they expect to find. Their destination is the remote and forbidden zone of the Hala’ib Triangle in southeastern Egypt. The treasure hunt involves one mishap and disaster after another, but still Crew and Garza keep pressing on to the remote location.

The Pharaoh Key is a fast paced, enjoyable action/adventure novel that involves more than one unexpected twist. Although reading the previous novels will give you additional background information and character development, I think you can enjoy this one as a stand-alone for the sheer value of the escapism and adventure it will provide. Are there some unanswered questions? Sure. Lucky coincidences? Yup. Miraculous escapes? Uh huh.  But is it a page-turner? Oh, yes! Adding to the action, Preston and Child manage to keep the tone light and even evoke a few laughs while providing an entertaining adventure, which, in the end is worthy of at least 4 out of 5 stars (and only rated in comparison against their other novels). Preston and Child know how to write well-paced entertaining story and that was certainly the case here.  I enjoyed reading The Pharaoh Key

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing via Netgalley.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Last Thing I Told You

The Last Thing I Told You by Emily Arsenault
William Marrow: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062567369

The Last Thing I Told You by Emily Arsenault is a highly recommended psychological mystery/police procedural.

When therapist Dr. Mark Fabian is found Bludgeoned to death in his office, it shakes the town of Campion, Connecticut. In the opening chapter former patient Nadine Raines finds Fabian's body and flees, full of conflicting emotions and introspection. After a violent incident at the local high school, she was a patient of Fabian's 20 years ago, starting when she was sixteen until she went off to college at eighteen. Nadine's chapters find her contemplating and replaying events from her life, including her sessions with the doctor. Why did she come back to see the doctor after so many years away?

Henry Peacher is the detective investigating Fabian’s death. He is a local hero after he stopped mass shooter Johnny Streeter's killing spree at a nursing home five years previously. Now, as he tries to piece together clues found in Fabian's office, he knows he needs to look into the doctors patients. His search leads him to two old files that the doctor had pulled and left out in his home. One file is Nadine's; the other file is Johnny Streeter's. Are the two connected? Henry also remembers Nadine from high school and the incident that lead her to therapy. Could she still have the same violent tendencies or hold a grudge against the doctor?

I really enjoyed the alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Nadine Raines and Detective Henry Preacher. Both are nuanced, well developed, imperfect characters. Henry Preacher is a great, realistically portrayed character and I loved the chapters following the police investigation. Nadine's chapters brought in the psychological thriller aspects to the novel. She is tormented still from her past. Much of her inner monologue is addressed to the doctor, as if she is still in therapy with him, and also dwells on other events from her past and childhood.

The Last Thing I Told You is really a enjoyable, well written novel with a nice twist at the end. It's not really a shocking thriller, but it is a very satisfying investigation with some psychological unease provided by Nadine's inner commentary. The suspense does continue to build gradually as the investigation continues and Nadine's commentary provides more background information. The setting, in a small town where everyone always seems to know everyone else, adds an additional dimension to the novel. I found the ending very satisfying because it reflected how an investigation might suddenly take an oblique turn, based on evidence, to find a resolution to the case.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of William Marrow.