Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe

Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe by Evan James
Atria Books: 3/26/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501199615 


Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe by Evan James is a highly recommended satirical comedy.

Frank Widdicombe is suffering from depression, but only according to his wife, Carol, who also contemplates other things Frank may be suffering from. The Widdicombes are a wealthy family summering at their island home, Willowbrook Manor, on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound. Carol is planning a garden, created and cared for by Marvelous Matthews. Self-help author Gracie Sloane is going to spend the summer with them. Their son, a painter, has just returned with a broken heart from Italy. The Widdicombe's personal assistant Michelle is enamored of screenwriter Bradford, who returns her ardor. There are employees and guests and events planned for the summer that will hopefully cheer up Frank out of his supposed depression.

This comedy will strongly remind you of a hilarious and sophisticated screwball comedy in films (for example: Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday or Some Like it Hot), only set in the present day. The narrative features the same absurd dialogue, irreverent wit, and repartee between characters as found in these old comedic films. The novel "outlines a summer with a family that’s so neurotic they’re almost normal."

In order to appreciate Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe, readers will need to be prepared for the comedic banter and actions of all the characters in this debut novel that does not take itself or its characters too seriously. These characters are all characterized by outlandish and absurd behaviors and dialogues. They are laughably dysfunctional, prone to follow whatever New Age thought process that catches their eye. Don't take this novel too seriously. You need to laugh at all of it in order to appreciate it. Now, at times it does wander close to being a bit too over-the-top, but on the other hand, that does make it a fun read. This is a good choice for a summer vacation read.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Run Away

Run Away by Harlan Coben
Grand Central Publishing: 3/19/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781538748466


Run Away by Harlan Coben is a compelling, very highly recommended domestic thriller and intricate mystery. This one is a fast-moving page-turner!

Financial adviser Simon Greene and his pediatrician wife Ingrid have three children, Paige, Sam, and Anya, and from outward appearances they live a comfortable life. The problem is that they haven't seen their drug addicted daughter, Paige, ever since she dropped out of college and disappeared with her loser junkie/dealer boyfriend Aaron Corval. When Simon is told a friend saw an emaciated Paige playing her guitar and pan handling in Central Park, he keeps an eye out for her, finds out when she plays there, and approaches her after her "set." She ran away from him and Simon follows. When he tries to stop Paige, she starts yelling. Aaron appears, and steps in to stop him, but Simon punches him out, trying to follow Paige. By-standers intervened and Simon is arrested. The whole event was recorded on phones and spun as the evil rich guy beating up a poor homeless guy.
 
Simon deals with all the attention and legal questions, coming out with no charges, when another cop shows up at his office months later with a few questions. Aaron has been murdered and Paige is nowhere to be found. This sets Aaron and Ingrid on a quest to find Paige and keep her safe from whoever killed Aaron. Simon's search leads him to some surprising, dark and threatening places and contacting people he normally wouldn't. Soon his search for Paige is even more complicated, precarious, and dangerous than even Simon realizes. 

Run Away has it all. The writing is pitch-perfect; the plot is complicated, intricate, and fast-moving; the characters are interesting and well-developed. The pages will fly by in this lightening-paced-stay-up-until-you-finish-it thriller. (And I drank an extra-large cup of coffee after work to do just that.) As the twisty mystery unfolds in Simon's search and becomes increasingly complex, it leads to unexpected answers and more investigation. I was surprised at the satisfying final ending. Coben's writing is excellent as is his plot and pacing. I really enjoyed this whole novel right up to the final denouement.

All the characters are well developed and realistic. Simon is a wonderful character - a loving, caring father who would do anything to try to save his daughter. Simon finds himself in the midst of something that is more treacherous than he even knows, but he perseveres, even when circumstances mean he needs some extra encouragement to do so, in order to reach the final answers.
 
Run Away is an exceptional taut thriller and the perfect choice for escapism!

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Study of Animal Languages

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern
Penguin Random House: 2/19/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525557432 


The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern is a recommended novel about a marriage in crisis due to a lack of communication.

Prue, a professor of in the emerging field of biolinguistics, the study of the biology and evolution of language, is delivering the college's annual lecture in the Life Sciences about birdsong. Her husband, Ivan, a philosophy professor of epistemology at the same college in Rhode Island, has gone to Vermont to pick up her father, Frank, who is determined to attend her lecture. She doesn't want him there as his bipolar disorder can make him and his actions unstable and unpredictable. Ivan is driving Frank to hear the lecture and he is supposed to make sure Frank takes his meds.

Ivan and Prue are very different personalities but so far have made their marriage work, although Ivan now feels a distance between them. The expectation is that this lecture and weekend will represents an important step in her career since Prue's lecture on birdsong will likely result in tenure for her. Both the lecture and the weekend don't go as planned at all. Not only is Frank not taking his meds and causes several problems, Prue's lecture is not at all what Ivan and the college expected. Adding to the drama is Ivan's suspicions that Prue is interested in a visiting professor. 

The Study of Animal Languages follows Ivan and one crisis, misunderstanding, and incident after another. Communication is lacking between everyone in this novel. This is really a chronicle of one disastrous weekend and the breakdown of a couple's marriage. There really is no right or wronged party. Both Ivan and Prue are making errors, although the focus in the novel is about Ivan's mistakes and misreading of situations. For example, Ivan is placed in charge of medicating Frank, while Prue is never proactive, following-up on this important detail until the disastrous end results. Prue also lets Ivan know in front of colleagues that she hasn't turned down a fellowship that he thought she had. Both of these people are disastrous at communication.

The prose is very descriptive - erudite and dense at times - but also insightful. "The more incisive her contributions, she once remarked, in a rare display of cynicism, the more likely they were to elicit from her male interlocutor a bashful deference, disguised as respect." The relationship between Ivan and Prue, as well as with the other characters, is a series of one misstep after another. Stern does capture the limitations of language and how we misunderstand each other and ourselves in numerous ways every day. 

As a character, Ivan is well-developed, as is Frank to some extent, but Prue, remains a bit of a cipher with limited character development. It might have helped the novel out to either know Prue better or provide Ivan with a more complete background. I just kept thinking that the novel, although good, was missing a key piece, an important piece of the puzzle that needed to be communicated. Perhaps that is intended in this novel about limitations of interpersonal communication, but it still felt like it missed the mark.

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Liar's Child

The Liar's Child by Carla Buckley
Penguin Random House: 3/12/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101887127 


The Liar's Child by Carla Buckley is a highly recommended novel of suspense.

Set mainly at the dilapidated Paradise apartment complex on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, The Liar's Child follows a handful of characters: Whit, Sara, Hank, and Cassie. Sara Lennox is in the witness protection program, awaiting her testimony in an upcoming trial. Her FBI handlers have set her up in an apartment at the Paradise and she's got a cleaning job. Sara has noticed the children who live next door, rebellious twelve-year-old Cassie and needy five-year-old Boon, and the social worker who has been by asking her what she knows about the family. Boon is taken by Sara and finds her fascinating. Sara knows there is more going on after their father, Whit tells her about his wife leaving them. 

When a hurricane approaches, Sara is supposed to be evacuated by her handlers, but she has other, secret plans put into place that she is going to carry out now. As she is leaving the Paradise, she looks up to see Cassie and Boon, out on their deck, apparently left alone by Whit. She loads them into her car at the last minute to get them off the island to somewhere safe too. Now Sara has the two children under her care and needs to find some place to leave them so she can carry out her own plans.

Buckley uses an omniscient narrator to tell the story of these damaged individuals - and they are all very damaged, hurting, troubled, and have secrets. All of the characters, are flawed and well-drawn and their misdeeds and troubles are slowly revealed, leaked out bit by bit, as the story unfolds. They all keep things to themselves, even Cassie and Boon. It is nice to see that Cassie and Boon are portrayed as characters representative of their ages. Sara is a complex woman, with a life of secrets, and she is clearly unfamiliar with children. Whit is stressed out and doing the best he can. Hank's role in this drama won't be known until much later in the narrative.

In this well-written novel, the approaching hurricane adds an element of danger and increases the sense of urgency, but the story is found in the characters and their interactions. While there are surprising twists, the real plot is in the interaction of these people and the role of fate in their actions. Pay attention to the brief descriptions of objects found randomly between chapters as their importance will become clear later.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Fall Back Down When I Die

Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins
Little, Brown and Company: 3/12/19
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316475358

Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins is a highly recommended politically laden drama set in Montana.


Wendell Newman, 24, is a ranch hand in Eastern Montana who is seriously in debt after his mother's death. He owes back taxes on the land he inherited and is paying off his mother's medical bills. When a social worker shows up, Wendell learns he is the only relative of seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, who is the son of Wendell's incarcerated cousin. Rowdy, who is mute and likely on the autism spectrum, moves in with Wendell and the two form a strong bond.

There is trouble brewing in Montana, between the cowboys and ranchers of the old West and the environmentalists, with the first legal wolf hunt, and increasing regulations being enforced on BLM land, and increasing state involvement with the rural families. As much as Wendell wants to stay out of it, he is a part of it simply because his father, Verl, took a stand years earlier and killed a man. Then Verl went into hiding and on the run, leaving his family behind.

The story unfolds between the point-of-view of three characters and chapters alternate between the voices of Verl, Wendell, and Gillian. The novel opens with the first person account of Verl, on the run and evading the law in the Big Dry mountains. His chapters consist of what he is writing to his son in one of Wendell's notebooks that he grabbed when leaving. Wendell and Gillian's narratives are told in third person accounts. Gillian is an assistant principal and counselor, who wants to help but also allows her own judgmental opinions of "rural stupidity" to color her actions. It was her husband, Kevin, that Verl killed years earlier. At the end of the novel two other voices are heard from.

The writing is beautifully descriptive and poetic as it carefully and skillfully captures the setting and the characters. The characters are all well developed and precisely depicted as individuals with their own beliefs and feelings. The novel is slow-paced at the beginning, taking time to describe the land and people as the story leads, inevitably to the haunting and heart-breaking climax.

All the characters are survivors and suffering from emotional damaged in some way. Wendell and Rowdy are wonderful characters and immediately captured my heart. Gillian, I must admit, caused conflicting emotions. She annoyed me since she just seemed to be so opinionated and judgemental about the people she was supposed to be helping, but I alternately had compassion for her and her own struggles.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

And Then You Were Gone

And Then You Were Gone by R. J. Jacobs
Crooked Lane Books: 3/13/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781683319597


And Then You Were Gone by R. J. Jacobs is a highly recommended novel of mystery and suspense.

Emily Firestone is taking a weekend sailing trip with her boyfriend Paolo. Emily has her bi-polar disorder under control and, although she's panicked over being out on the boat in the lake because she can't swim, she feels like she can keep her panic at bay. Paolo is a strong swimmer and an experienced sailor. He has assured her she will be safe and they will have a lovely weekend. After dinner and drinks on the boat the night before, Emily awakens the next morning on the boat, Paolo is gone, she has a horrible headache, and the boat is drifting around the lake. Emily manages to get back to shore, report Paolo as missing. What could have happened to him?

When evidence begins to suggest that something more sinister is afoot and Paolo's disappearance may be due to foul play, Emily begins to forget her meds and is moving into a manic state - or is she just naturally concerned? The more she discovers, the more erratic her behavior becomes. The more erratic she becomes, the less she sleeps.  Soon she is high on the police's list of suspects.

Emily is an unreliable narrator and trusting what she thinks she knows and believes can be a struggle at times because you don't know what her state of mind is - especially since she mentions frequently as the novel progresses that she's forgot her meds, isn't eating, and she's not sleeping. All of these factors make her incredibly unreliable and untrustworthy as a protagonist. Adding to the mix are other characters who either begin to doubt Emily or are suspicious themselves.

While the plot will hold your interest and moves quickly, the narrative flow in this novel can be a bit bumpy at times. Part of this is due to Emily's state, and part to an inconsistency in the narrative. Events do start to collate into some semblance of a timeline, but questions still remain about why Emily is allowed so much freedom to move about considering she's a suspect. If you set aside any little niggling questions about certain details (which could have been handled in final editing) this is an enjoyable mystery with an exciting climax. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crooked Lane Books.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Cemetery Road

Cemetery Road by Greg Iles
HarperCollins: 3/5/19
eBook review copy; 608 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062824615


Cemetery Road by Greg Iles is a compelling, very highly recommended Southern novel of suspense and one of the best novels I've read this year.

"I never meant to kill my brother. I never set out to hate my father. I never dreamed I would bury my own son. Nor could I have imagined that I would betray the childhood friend who saved my life, or win a Pulitzer Prize for telling a lie. All these things I have done, yet most people I know would call me an honorable man." opening

Marshall McEwan has returned to his hometown of Bienville, Mississippi, because his father is dying. Marshall swore he'd never return when he left at eighteen, but his mother needs his help. His father is terminally ill, and the 150-year-old family owned newspaper, The Watchman, is struggling. He also knows that his first love, Jet, who is married to his best friend, Paul, will be in Bienville. Marshall begins his story when Buck McKibben, the scoutmaster who was a surrogate father to him after his father ignored him, is murdered.

But Marshall, who is an accomplished investigative journalist, begins to look into the murder and the role that the Poker Club could have played in it. The Poker Club is a group of wealthy  good old boy patriarchs who rule the town and control it behind the scenes. They have been running the town as long as The Watchman has been around. Now they have managed to land a deal for a billion-dollar Chinese paper mill to come to town and start an economic upturn for the town. It seems that Buck's death may have been tied to a discovery that would stop that from happening.

"To understand this story, you must swim between two times like a person moving from wakefulness to sleep and then back again." The story requires the disclosure of background information from years ago that affects the present day machinations. The narrative is a tangled tale that includes the death of brothers and sons, friendship, first loves, war, dysfunctional families, secrets, betrayals, corruption, and the power of wealth.

Iles has penned another excellent, engrossing, spellbinding novel that will seize your attention, induce many diverse emotions, and not let up until the ending. I was completely immersed in the narrative from start to finish and the pages flew by as I compulsively read "just one more chapter." This is a long book, but it doesn't feel overly long. The plot is intricate and complicated on several different levels.  The setting is well-developed and the characters are fully realized. You may find yourself talking back to Marshall, telling him to use his brain, as he makes some decisions that you (and he) know are mistakes.

The quality of the writing, though, is what sets Iles apart and makes this exceptional novel one of the best I have read this year. It has been awhile since I simply had to save quotes from a novel, and I have pages full of them from Cemetery Road. For those paying attention, there is a plethora of wisdom and universal truths found in Iles writing. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

I'm sharing a few of the quotes I saved even though I had a review copy and not a final edition.

"Many a man or woman has awakened from a months-long oxytocin high and realized that they’ve put their spouse, their children, or even their life at risk in a blind quest to regain a purity and intensity of experience allowed only to the young."

"Whatever the trigger of our passion, we cross a line that we once believed inviolate, and by so doing throw the world out of balance in such a way that it must eventually right itself, regardless of human casualties. Ironically, our passion blinds us to our true motives. Often we perceive our personal world as out of balance and seize on the notion that another person will somehow right the ship, restoring the “happiness” we crave. The mind-altering ecstasy of sexual union further distorts our perception, making it infinitely harder to navigate the maze we have created for ourselves. This self-induced blindness pushes us to take insane risks."

“Maybe I shouldn’t give you advice. But I’ll say this: if your dad doesn’t come around, it’s because he doesn’t want to. That’s got nothing to do with you. He’s missing something in his character. Divorce is one thing, leaving a wife. But a man who leaves his children is something else. I’ve got no respect for a man who does that. A father who leaves his children does damage that can never be repaired. That’s why you’re hurting now.”

"And the horror is this: when your wife or husband truly gives themselves to another person, they haven’t done it to hurt you. In fact, they’ve probably taken great care to avoid hurting you. No, the unspeakable truth is that you no longer matter to them. Except as the mother or father of their children, you do not exist. That is why people refuse to see. To do so, they’d have to crack the door on limitless darkness in which they have come to mean nothing to the person who knows them best in the world. They must face, probably for the first time, being utterly alone. And that way lies madness."

“We’re all on Cemetery Road,” he says, turning his head enough to see the kudzu-choked ravine drift by under the gray sky. “Some of us are just closer to this end than others. Some are still near enough to that spring to pretend the road leads somewhere else, or maybe goes on forever. But we’re all headed to the graveyard sooner or later. Or the river.”