Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Watcher

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong
MIRA: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778330721

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong is a recommended novel of suspense with an unreliable narrator.

"Lily Gullick lives with her husband, Aiden, in a brand-new apartment opposite a building that has been marked for demolition. A keen bird-watcher, she can't help spying on her neighbors.
Until one day Lily sees something suspicious through her binoculars, and soon her elderly neighbor Jean is found dead. Lily, intrigued by the social divide in her local area as it becomes increasingly gentrified, knows that she has to act. But her interference is not going unnoticed, and as she starts to get close to the truth, her own life comes under threat."

With a nod to Hitchcock's Rear Window, the narrator, Lily, is watching her neighbors and neighborhood out her window with binoculars and giving those she sees names, as well as recording what they are doing. Her husband, Aiden is even writing a book about the famous director. The Watcher is written in the form of a long letter or journal entry to a recipient who is identified much later in the book. As the novel progresses, Lily reveals more about herself and you will begin to realize that something is off with her and her responses. Can she be believed?

This is a satisfying debut novel and has several surprises along the way that you won't see coming - along with some you might. Since Lily is the only character we have any insight into, we have to view the action through her perceptions and conclusions - and they will start to feel skewed after a bit. It is a novel about perception and creates a fair amount of psychological suspense as the action and Lily's conclusions become more intense.

Those who enjoy mysteries and like following the point-of-view of one character should certainly look into
The Watcher.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA.

Anything Is Possible

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Random House: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989403

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is a very highly recommended transcendent postscript to My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016). This is a superb novel.

Anything Is Possible
returns us to Amgash, Illinois, and explores the stories found in the lives of others who lived there and the connections they have to each other and Lucy. This exquisite novel is told through a series of chapters that are individual stories which capture the fundamental essence of people's lives (the same approach she took in Olive Kitteridge). Strout manages to capture the whole spectrum of human emotions across the years in these perfect individual but interconnected vignettes.

The themes are timeless, including: the search for love and happiness; self-respect; faith; the bonds of families; divorce and infidelity; the gulf between poverty and privilege; violence and abuse; The individual stories together to create a portrait of a community and those who had ties to it. Not all the stories are completely sad, but they all have a melancholy undertone as the characters have faced the complexities of life and grown from their experiences (or not).

The writing is extraordinary, impeccable, and... just perfect. The characters and setting in each story are finely drawn and eloquently described, even when the lives are damaged and struggling.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Beartown

Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501160769

Beartown by Fredrik Backman is a very highly recommended novel that follows a wildly varied group of citizens from a small Swedish town obsessed with hockey - but it is about so much more than that. Beartown is a must-read exceptional novel that I predict will resonate with readers for a long time.

This incredible, profound book is sure to be a contender for my list of top ten novels for 2017. I'll totally admit that, during the first part of Beartown, I wasn't so thrilled with the novel, thinking it was going to be exclusively a hockey story about a down-on-their luck small town with a winning team in the big tournament. I love Backman's writing, though, so I continued reading. Then it became about so much more than hockey and stole my heart and mind. So my first piece of advice is to keep reading even if you aren't a hockey fan. 

"Beartown's real traditional sports: shame and silence."

Beartown is a small dying town slowly being taken over by the surrounding forest. The whole town is consumed by hockey and the junior ice hockey team that is about to compete in the national semi-finals. These boys actually have a chance at winning, which could change the luck of the whole town. The team has several great players, but is lead by an exceptional player, Kevin, and his best friend, Benji, who is fearless in assisting him. After winning the semi-final, the teenage boys have a party and an incident at the party changes everything. Soon the town is tearing itself apart, taking sides, and making moral choices.

Bachman has a rich cast of characters that populate Beartown - and the town itself is a character. His characters are distinct individuals with strengths and weaknesses - all of his characters. When you are done reading you will know these people. While many are influenced by the outspoken opinion of others, there are a few who have the character to stand up for their own opinions and for themselves. If you've ever grown up in a small town (likely obsessed by football or basketball in the USA) you have lived in this town and you know these people. And, of course, there is hockey too, which becomes a character.

The writing is rich, masterful, and admirable. There are moments of great failure and overwhelming compassion, scenes of desperate cruelty and sly humor, and people with a malicious bent and others with a quiet wisdom. The empathetic narrative explores love, personal sacrifice, and the vital importance of family and friendships. This exceptional novel is part character study, part morality tale, part coming-of-age story, part family drama, part redemptive tale and totally wonderful. Just read this novel asap.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I Found You

I Found You by Lisa Jewell
Atria Books: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501154591

I Found You by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended novel of suspense. This page-turner held my rapt attention from the mysterious beginning to the satisfying conclusion.

For much of the novel the story follows three different narratives. The first part of the book follows Alice and Lily.
Single mom Alice Lake lives in a seaside town, Ridinghouse Bay in East Yorkshire. She sees a man just sitting on the beach in the rain. He's been there for over a day and is soaking wet so she offers him a coat her former tenant left. She ends up inviting him to stay in her studio room/guesthouse for the night when it looks like he's simply going to stay on the beach. The man can't remember who he is or why he'd be at the beach. Alice's children give him the name Frank.

Twenty-one-year-old Ukrainian Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks to Carl, her British husband when he fails to come home from work one night. She has no idea where he is or how to find him in England. When she contacts the police and gives them his passport, she learns from them that his passport is a fake and officially her husband, Carl Monrose, never existed. Lily was sure her much older husband was devoted to her and loved her, so where is he? But maybe more importantly, who is he?

The second part of the book opens in 1993 when Gray, seventeen, and Kirsty, fifteen, are on a summer holiday with their parents. In town and later on the beach nineteen-year-old Mark makes it clear that he likes Kirsty, while Gray doesn't quite trust Mark and his intentions toward his sister.

This is a captivating novel where the tension increases with each new chapter. Who is Frank? Where/who is Lily's husband? What are Mark's intentions? But the overriding question is how well do you really know other people? Alice tries to help Frank figure out who he is while Lily tries to figure out where her husband is. The story of Gray and Kirsty eventually ties into the other two, but it all happens in a rather surprising way.

Jewell's writing is admirable, both poetic and descriptive. I Found You is a well-paced novel that slowly becomes more and more unputdownable with each chapter. I can honestly say that I was equally interested in each character and every revelation or question that each new chapter divulged. The desire to just read one more chapter was almost addictive. She deftly moves her characters through their chapters and allows the questions and intrigue to build up while she develops her characters into believable people. Jewell combines impressive writing with great character development and wraps it all into a novel where the psychological suspense and mysteries keep building for a winning combination. 


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Burntown

Burntown by Jennifer McMahon
Knopf Doubleday: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385541367

"Up top, where the college was, where people went to work every day at the paper mill, that was Ashford. But down here under the bridge where the women did the snuff, saw visions, and ate fire, this was Burntown."
 
In 1975, Miles Sandeski saw a man wearing a chicken mask cut his mother's throat as she lounged in the backyard. Although Miles knew it wasn't him, his father was accused of the murder and hung himself. Now Miles has a family, his wife, Lily, and son and daughter, Errol and Eva. Miles also has the secret plans of an invention design by Thomas Edison that were given to him by his father. It is for a machine that will allow people to communication with the dead. Miles builds the machine, uses it once, and then keeps it covered up in his shop.

Years later the machine warns them of danger. A flood destroys their home, Miles and Errol are dead, and Lily and Eva (now known as Necco) have run away to safety, living with a group of homeless women. These women are where Lily joins a mystical group of women who call themselves "fire eaters" and snort a red powder they call "the devil's snuff" which is supposed to give them visions. When Lily later throws herself off a bridge, Necco (Eva) leaves the group and lives in an abandoned car with Hermes, her boyfriend.  When another murder happens, Necco realizes that she is being pursued and targeted by an evil man her mom called "Snake Eyes."

Along with Necco and the Sandeski's story, Burntown follows the narrative of two others women: Theo, a high school senior and Pru, the cafeteria lady with a secret life. The lives of these three characters eventually unite into one storyline.

In Burntown, McMahon presents a satisfying story with a substantial plot. The story is intriguing with several mysteries/questions that need answers along with a sense of danger that follows all of our characters as they try to find the answers. But there is also an underlying sense of wonder and fascination in several scenes of the novel that are almost magical. Adding to the narrative are the many secrets - things aren't always what they seem in the plot and people - and mystical elements.

The characters are well-defined and developed. Several of the characters brought to life on the pages are memorable and made reading even more imperative. Once I started, I simply could not stop reading Burntown. McMahon is one of my go-to authors for exceptional writing combined with a compelling plot. I was totally engrossed from beginning to end. Burntown by Jennifer McMahon is a very highly recommended supernatural mystery/thriller.
 


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Unprotected

The Unprotected by Kelly Sokol
Skyhorse Publishing:4/25/17
eBook review copy; 296 pages
ISBN-13: 9781510718326

The Unprotected by Kelly Sokol is highly recommended women's literary fiction.

Lara James is a ad executive with a thriving career and a husband she adores. After her father's death she devotes herself even more fully to her career and marries her husband, Will, a college professor her father knew. The two are immediately attracted to each other. They both devote themselves to their careers and each other for several years, until Lara surprises them both by wanting a child. Getting pregnant doesn't come easy, though, and Lara and Will have to endure years of treatments and miscarriages until she finally becomes pregnant. When their daughter Auden is born, though, being a mother isn't as tranquil and calm as Lara thought it would be.

The Unprotected is well written and will draw you into the story right away. The novel is also well-paced; I read the book in one sitting and was engaged through the whole book. Sokol does a nice job developing Lara's character. She's obnoxious in many ways, but you will see her behavior patterns as being consistent with her personality. The infertility problems and miscarriages had me feeling desperately sorry for her pain. When her daughter is born and she spirals into postpartum depression, again, I felt her pain.

So, basically, I like The Unprotected, but there are two glaring problems with it. First Lara is not always a very sympathetic character. It's difficult to feel compassion for her over her infertility and then postpartum depression because she is portrayed as being so uncharitable to other women not on her career path and so incredibly perfect. The only way you can manage this is to draw on personal experiences, your own experience or ones shared with you from your own circle of family and friends. Since so many women have experienced both of these, gathering up empathy for her was relatively easy, despite her difficult personality.

The second flaw overwhelms what the theme of the novel was supposed to be, postpartum depression, according to the synopsis, in my opinion. The Unprotected portrays Lara as a career-minded woman who doesn't want children, but changes her mind in her late thirties. This is easily understood by many women. Then we go through her miscarriages and subsequent infertility treatments. I'm assuming that Sokol wanted to show how much Lara wanted a child before she actually had one. So many women endure the pain and loss from miscarriages and fertility problems that Lara's struggles with this seemed like it could easily carry the narrative of the book. When she finally gets pregnant, we rush through the pregnancy to her postpartum depression. Then we endure her suffering with a colicky baby and no relief. Again, many women have suffered from postpartum depression and didn't have the ability or foresight to ask for help. In my opinion, the book would have been stronger had it focused on one overriding problem - either the infertility and miscarriages, which devastate many woman but are rarely talked about, or her postpartum depression, which many woman also suffer through silently.

The Unprotected still deserves a good rating but could have benefited from a tighter focus. (Also, ignore the comparison to We Need to Talk About Kevin.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Fallout

Fallout by Sara Paretsky
HarperCollins: 4/18/17
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062435842
V. I. Warshawski Series #18

Fallout by Sara Paretsky is the highly recommended 18th book in her long-running V. I. Warshawski series. This time the case takes V. I. out of Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas.

Angela Creedy and Bernadine Fouchard (Brush Back, 2015) want  Warshawski to find Angela's cousin, August Veriden. The aspiring film maker is missing and the police want to question him over the ransacking the Six-Points Gym, where he works as a personal trainer. It appears that August left Chicago with aging black actress, Emerald Ferring. The two were headed to Kansas to film a documentary about her origins. The trail leads to Lawrence, KS, where the University of Kansas is located and the story evolves into more than simply a search for missing persons.

In Kansas Warshawski becomes enmeshed with events that happened in 1983 involving a protest at a missile silo outside of the town and plenty of small town gossip and politics. In response to posters she put up downtown, Sonia Kiel, the mentally -ll daughter of imminent retired KU professor Nathan Kiel, contacts Warshawski to tell her where she saw Emerald and August, but the call ends abruptly. When Warshawski goes to the bar Sonia called from she finds the woman drugged and unconscious. Warshawski calls 911, but this marks the first of several calls she will have to make while unraveling the events of 1983 and how they relate to her present case.

The plot on this outing does meander a bit off track and loses sight of the original case for a good chunk of the novel. Paretsky does pull it all together in the end and solves her case. There are several bad guys in this novel along with several ill-informed citizens. Warshawski continues to have an amazing ability to follow the least of clues and ingratiate herself with the right people while antagonizing the bad guys.

In the opening "Thanks" Paretsky explains that she grew up in Lawrence and her father was a professor and researcher at the University of Kansas. Lawrence is home to KU (1866), but also to Haskell Indian Nations University (1884). The population is probably around 90,000, not huge, but the city is an easy commute to nearby cities, including Topeka and the KC metro area. There are numerous colleges and universities nearby. I'm going to have to take this review a bit personal because of the location Paretsky choose. I totally get taking a place you knew growing up, and switching things up to suit your story by using the real location but with a new layout and altered terrain. I guess what I found rather troubling was her dislike of Lawrence. It became rather obvious that she harbors some latent animosity toward the city. I've live in Lawrence for about six years, but I have yet to encounter the cliquish behavior, city-wide gossip, or the prejudice she implies still exists. I actually lived in this area of the country many years ago. After moving several times to cities in other states across the country, I chose to move back to this area. So, if you were ever thinking of relocating to the area don't base your decision on what how this fictional novel portrays Lawrence.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.