Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Before She Was Found

Park Row Books: 4/16/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778307730 

Before She Was Found by Heather Gudenkauf is a very highly recommended psychological thriller and mystery. I could not put this novel down!

Twelve-year-old Cora, Violet, and Jordyn are having a sleepover at Cora's home in the small town of Pitch Iowa. When they decide to sneak outside and go to the abandoned rail yard, the end result is Cora found severely beaten, Violet is in shock and covered in blood, and Jordyn is at her home with her grandfather. The police and the parents are trying to find answers to who did this and why, but the answers are much more complicated than first imagined. Who could be responsible for this kind of crime? 

Cora has been struggling to make friends and navigate the emotional cesspool that is Middle School. Violet is shy, new to town, and it looks like she and Cora are going to be good friends. Jordyn is the school queen bee and a bully. She has been cruel to Cora, so her change of heart is suspect. The three girls have been working together on a class project on urban legends. They have chosen a local man, Joseph Wither, who was lived decades ago and is reputed to be a killer of young high school girls over the years. The three supposedly thought they were going to the rail yard to meet a man claiming to be Wither, who would be in his 90's now. 

Before She Was Found opens with the assault and then the past events leading up to are slowly disclosed. The narrative unfolds through the point-of-view of several different characters along with journal entries, text messages, therapist notes, and police interrogations. There are so many layers to this story and as each new clue is revealed, your suspect will change. Finding answers through girls who aren't able to say what happened, parents who are protecting their kids, authorities who are struggling to find clues and answers makes the investigation into the truth complicated and constantly changing. The ending is absolutely disquieting and stunning.

The writing is superb and the pacing of the narrative is perfect. I was totally immersed in the mystery and compulsively said "Just one more chapter..." while trying to figure out what happened. The characters were all believable and well-developed, although they aren't all reliable. At the conclusion of Before She Was Found I sat there, stunned. I did not even have a hint of a guess about what really happened. Before She Was Found is an excellent novel, compelling and engrossing throughout the whole novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Park Row Books.

Miracle Creek

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 4/16/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374156022

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is a very highly recommended twisty legal thriller and a notable debut novel.

Young and Pak Yoo and their teenage daughter Mary are an immigrant family from Korea who run a private experimental medical treatment facility in rural Miracle Creek, Virginia. Their "Miracle Submarine" is a pressurized oxygen chamber for hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT, which involves breathing pure, pressurized oxygen. Patients enter the chamber for "dives" that are believed to treat a wide range of issues and medical conditions. Their chamber is located in a barn behind their home. A fire, clearly arson, occurs, which causes the submarine to catch fire and explode, killing two people and injuring four others.

What or who caused the explosion is the focus of this legal thriller. A single mother of one of the patients who died is being charged with murder in the opening scenes. Her actions seem clearly suspect, but this is a complicated story with many suspects. As the trial starts the list of suspects, the secrets and the lies being told seem to multiply. As Kim develops the backstory of all her characters, new information and complications emerge, and the list of suspects grows ever longer as the plot becomes increasingly complicated.

Miracle Creek is an irresistible page turner, merging a dramatic murder trial with in-depth character studies and compelling courtroom scenes. All of the characters have secrets and information they are hiding from that night, but the complications are even more intricate than just a simple omission of a single fact. The suspects will change as you are reading and more facts and secrets come forth. You will feel some empathy or sympathy for all of the characters at least once. All of the lies and omissions will make sense if you have ever encountered a person who always makes themselves look good during all events and can never admit flaws. Even the way the lawyers can twist facts to benefit their clients is telling.

The writing is absolutely excellent and the plot is the perfect synthesis of character development, a complicated mystery, and a legal thriller. I was entrenched in the complicated, detailed plot and really had no clear idea who was guilty or if it would be a perfect storm of lies and mistakes that led to the explosion. The final denouement is very satisfying and ties up all loose ends. This is a brilliant debut novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Alice & Gerald

Alice & Gerald by Ron Franscell
Penguin Random House: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 330 pages
ISBN-13: 9781633885127

Alice & Gerald by Ron Franscell is a highly recommended true crime drama that reads like a novel.

Alice and Gerald Uden murdered at least four people and thought they had gotten away with it for almost forty decades. Between the two there were multiple failed marriages before they met and married. Alice killed husband number three in 1974. Gerald met and married her in 1976, a few weeks after his third divorce was final, and she became his fourth wife. The two were an oddly suited-for-each-other couple, with Alice firmly controlling their lives. When it seemed that Gerald's third ex-wife, Virginia, and mother to the two boys he adopted, might be wanting more child support, Alice wrote several insulting, unsettling, and vaguely threatening letters to Virginia. Then, in 1980, Virginia and the two boys mysteriously disappeared.

With Virginia's mother, Claire, suspected foul play - and Gerald. She was asking questions and insisting that the police investigate, although their initial investigation seemed perfunctory. After all, Virginia was living a nomadic lifestyle and she could have just decided to move on to somewhere else. It seemed Gerald got away with murder. And then, even when her children were telling authorities that Alice told them she killed her ex-husband, It seemed that this murder case would also go cold. Even when suspected and questioned, Alice and Gerald weren't talking. It took decades and the determination of several investigators to finally get the answers after a skeleton is found

What follows is a long investigation by authorities trying to bring murderers to justice. They also uncovered a lot of background information about Alice and Gerald. When the two cases break open in 2013, it is a relief to the readers that justice is finally served, and it is satisfying, even when served cold. 

Franscell writes this true story in a matter-of-fact style that reads like a police procedural crime novel, although the reader will have more inside information than the police did while working these cases. The book is extremely well-researched; Franscell spent two years researching it and interviewing Gerald.  Alice & Gerald contains chapter notes and sixteen pages of color photos. This is a fascinating case.

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

Someone Knows

Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline
Penguin Random House: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525539643

Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline is a recommended psychological domestic thriller.

Four fifteen-year-old teenagers find a gun buried in the woods and proceed to obsess over it and each other. Two of the teens are going through some serious hidden real-life trauma (Allie Garvey and David Hybrinski) and two are creating their own upper-class privileged teenage angst (Sasha Barrow and Julian Browne). When a fifth teen (Kyle Gallagher) who is already experiencing a life-changing trauma is added to the group, the dynamics change. A night of drinking ends with deadly results and the teens keep that night a secret, going their separate ways.

The turning point, the unbearable secret the teens share doesn't occur until the half-way point of the novel. The lead up to the event is spent in character development of the five teens, focusing on their lives and their secrets. Then the novel jumps ahead to the future when Allie is attending the funeral of one of the group. She realizes that the decision the four made has left her with guilt that has eaten away at her ever since that one fateful night.

This is really a novel of highly dysfunctional families and a very stupid teenage mistake. The ending is over-the-top and the final twist was... head-shakenly unbelievable. Part of the problem is that you are waiting until the novel is half over for the huge game-changer and you are spending the time leading up to that focused on these teens, their problems, their emotions, and their families. Then the whole tone of the novel changes into a different novel.

Since this is a Scottoline novel, she partially gets away with this because she's such a good writer. I paused only twice, wondering what was going on with the pacing while waiting for the game changing event, and then the end, which seemed like a very different novel in comparison to the first half. When I finished it, I had to wait before even trying to write a review because my initial impression was so poor. In summary, The quality of the writing is excellent, the characters are well developed, the pacing is very uneven, and the ending requires you to set disbelief aside.

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Last

The Last by Hanna Jameson
Atria Books: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501198823 

The Last by Hanna Jameson is a highly recommended end-of-the-world psychological thriller.

Jon Keller is attending an academic conference at the isolated L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland when people begin to receive the notifications of nuclear bombs hitting various cities - Washington D.C., NYC, London, Berlin... As the news outlets and social media explode with the shocking news, they also quickly go silent and it is impossible to contact people. Jon is unable to contact his wife and regrets the harsh words they exchanged before he left for the conference. In the aftermath of the apocalyptic news, many people leave the hotel and try to get to the airport. Others commit suicide, or wander off into the surrounding woods. The clouds are now a strange color.

Two months afterwards, Jon is still at the hotel with a small group of twenty survivors comprised of guests and staff. When the water begins to taste off, Jon joins a small group who head up to the water tanks on the roof to investigate. They are shocked to find the body of a young girl in one of the tanks. Jon becomes obsessed with trying to find out who she was, investigate her death, and find the person responsible for it.

The chapters are written from Jon's point-of-view and in the form of a sort of journal documenting life in the hotel, including personal stories about the other survivors and their experiences. Jon records his investigation, personal interactions, and stories from the others. The tension rises from the isolation of the group, along with the various personalities and alliances that naturally form with a diverse group of people.

Characters Jon interacts with and are his friends are well developed. Naturally they all have secrets. Other characters whose stories Jon records are developed as secondary characters and, perhaps, suspects as the novel progresses. The novel focuses more on the psychological aspects of the situation, which seems very realistic in this isolation scenario, although there are cases of danger when violence is a real possibility.

The writing is quite good and the tension increases incrementally. The narrative moves along at an even pace - until the end when it inexplicably ramps up the pace to the point where the denouement feels rushed. This is part of the locked-room genre of novels, with the isolated setting during an apocalypse limiting the number of suspects but also making finding an answer nearly impossible. I liked the ending, despite the rushed aspects of it.

There were several instances in some of the interactions between characters when I could definitely tell that the author is British, not American.  For example, there was a place in a conversation where Jon said that " America we've all been taught this idea that we're descended from rugged self-reliant cowboys." (Ah, no. We're not taught this. Never. Not even a hint of this.) There were also several rather disparaging instances of political commentary. It would have behooved Jameson to leave out some of that which she doesn't actually know as fact.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Saving Meghan

Saving Meghan by D.J. Palmer
St. Martin's Press: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250107459

Saving Meghan by D.J. Palmer is a recommended domestic medical thriller.

Becky Gerard is a devoted mother who only wants her only child, Meghan, to be well and healthy, but Meghan has been struggling with a mysterious, undiagnosed illness. Becky has learned the medical jargon and made personal connections with specialists while trying to help Meghan. Carl, Becky's husband and Meghan's father, doubts Becky's motives. He thinks she is obsessed and making Meghan ill by her treatment of her.

When Becky meets with several new specialists she gets a new diagnosis for Meghan and a diagnosis for herself. While one specialist, Dr. Zach Fisher, believes Meghan has mitochondrial disease, another more powerful MD, Dr. Amanda Nash, believes Becky has Munchausen syndrome by proxy and maneuvers the situation for the state to take custody of Meghan. Now Becky is fighting for the life of her child and her reputation.
The narrative is told through several different characters, including Becky, Meghan, and Zach, with Becky being the main narrator. Becky and Carl both are rude and unpleasant characters, although we are repeatedly told how darn attractive they are and how much this matters to everyone they encounter. Becky is such an annoying character - egotistical, privileged, and manipulative - that it is difficult to muster sympathy for her. It is clear, from the start, that Becky will be accused of Munchausen's. She is so unlikable that it is easy to believe except for snippets from Meghan's narrative which suggest something else is going on in her family.
The writing is good, in spite of the unpleasant characters. This is a medical thriller that will pass the time if you simple overlook the traits of the characters and just follow the plot. There are some twists and surprises, however the pacing is a little slow at times. While there is a lot of medical jargon, it does serve to highlight Becky's obsession with Meghan's medical condition which helps to make Becky's diagnosis believable. This was a 3.5 for me, but I'm rounding down because the novel was a chore to read at certain junctures. A strong airplane book choice.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

Outside Looking In

Outside Looking In by T. C. Boyle
HarperCollins: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062882981

Outside Looking In by T. C. Boyle is a very highly recommended look at early psychedelic experimentation in the 1960's.

LSD was first synthesized in BaselIn, Switzerland in 1943, as covered in the prelude. The novel then advances to 1962-1964 and introduces Fitzhugh (Fitz) Loney, a psychology Ph.D. student at Harvard. When his advisor, Tim, invites Fitz and his wife, Joanie, to attend a Saturday night research session at his home, they are nervous, but accept. Tim and his inner circle are taking psilocybin mushrooms to see if they could be used in a therapeutic treatment program. Soon, Tim and the group begin to take LSD for research purposes. Fitz and Joanie are not completely entrenched in the group at first, but that changes when Tim rents a resort in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, invites the whole research group to join him, starting the idea of communal living, and begins to offer summer seminars. Fitz and Joanie go to Mexico, taking Corey, their teenage son along.

As the research becomes less scientific, Tim loses his position at Harvard, but rents a sixty-four room mansion in Millbrook, NY, for the group. There they will practice communal living and offer seminars to other interested parties. As experimentation and rampant drug usage ensues, all ideas of academic papers and scientific trials are set aside. Fitz, who was going to work on his PhD thesis at Millbrook, instead loses focus, and his family begins to disintegrate.

Outside Looking In is thoroughly engrossing and I was totally entrenched in the narrative. Even if you know where it is heading, Boyle has presented a fascinating insight into Leary's perspective through the viewpoint of Fitz and Joanie as they enter his inner circle. The writing is excellent in the detailed plot, capturing the times and the flawed personalities involved without resorting to stereotypical descriptions. The narrative follows the actions of the characters and their experiences, while allowing the reader to make deductions about the ethics or any overarching morality themes.
The character of Fitz is well developed and the reader can clearly follow the change in him as he moves further into Tim's inner circle and increases his experimentation. That is not to imply that he is predictable. He does slowly go through a transition, as does Joanie. No judgement is made on their integrity or transitions. The narrative follows the action and the judgements and  conclusions are left to the reader. It is a small slice of a small group of people during an interesting time in history. This novel captures a time, a juncture in history, and the implication of the cultural impact to come.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.