Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bring Her Home

Bring Her Home by David Bell
Penguin Publishing Group: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399584442

Bring Her Home by David Bell is a recommended thriller, highly for the right reader.

Bill Price's fifteen-year-old daughter, Summer, and her best friend Haley, have been found dumped in a park after they had disappeared days earlier. Haley is declared dead at the scene while Summer is in the hospital with severe life threatening injuries. This is just a year and a half after his wife and her mother died, so Bill is over-the-top distraught. As he talks to detectives at the hospital about Summer, hoping they can find out who did this, he is waiting to see if his daughter regains consciousness. Bill is a man on the edge.

This is a well-written novel told in quick, short chapters. The narrative is told from Bill's point-of-view. Bell provides several twists in Bring Her Home, but most of them were predictable and I didn't find myself surprised by any of them. Let me just say the plot twists are all ripped-from-the-headlines reveals and not entirely believable. I was still interested in the story, but I had guessed correctly what was going to happen at every turn. There was no suspense here for me. It is entertaining, though, and would make a good vacation read, especially with the short chapters and quick pace. I did finish Bring Her Home and generally liked it.

I guess the biggest issue I had with Bring Her Home is the character of Bill. His quick temper was very off-putting because it seems he is angry, very angry, all-the-time. You also know that he wants to hit/punch/blame someone almost all-the-time. It's not only that he comes across as a rather unsympathetic, unlikable fellow (and you want to like a grieving husband and father) it's that the violence is always so close to the surface that I never felt I could trust the man's emotions. He also repeats himself again and again and again. There are also a few other problems that I had that might not bother anyone reading causally for escapism and sheer entertainment.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

Tropic of Kansas

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
eBook review; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062563811

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown is a highly recommended dystopian/political satire set in the alternate reality of a future, fractured USA.

Sig was an illegal from the USA hiding in Canada, until he was caught and sent back over the border wall into the area that was once Minnesota. Now the Midwest is just part of a wasteland of warring factions and provincial militia groups. This area has been dubbed The Tropic of Kansas and is known for the third world lawlessness that thrives there and the various greedy leaders who control parts of it. Sig, the son of political dissidents, is a survivor and escape artist. He essentially trusts no one. He's difficult to keep as a prisoner because he will find a way to escape. He will also find a way to survive.

Tania was once Sig's foster sister. Sig's mother dropped him off at her house for Tania's mother to care for when her arrest was imminent. Tania is now a government investigator. She got into a little trouble in Washington D.C. and is now looking for Sig to rectify her mistake and to try to get her own mother free from imprisonment. When Tanis goes searching for Sig, she comes to terms with her own past and perhaps the direction of her future.

Chapters alternate between Tania and Sig. You'll be rooting for Sig as he manages to escape from one predicament, betrayal, and impressionist after another. You'll also be hoping Tania sees the light, and the corruption of the government, and finds Sig along with a new goal for herself.

Brown takes present ideological differences, technology, factions, and widely different beliefs among citizens in the USA today and escalates all of it into a dystopian setting while setting his characters into this action packed satire. It's a wild ride through politics, drones, guns, and bullies. It's also an easy to read novel, with short chapters that avoid much detailed descriptions of settings or other characters. This is entertaining - certainly a good airplane book. It is worth noting that you should anticipate that Brown will hit you over the head with pc politics along with the expectation that you will naturally believe all that he believes. But, since this is also set in an alternate reality USA, it is much easier to just go with the flow and accept any precautionary statements that might be leached out of the adventure.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Sister's Bones

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
Advanced reading copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062661968

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood is a very highly recommended psychological thriller. This is an excellent, compelling, unforgettable novel that will keep you guessing.

Kate Rafter, who has been a war correspondent for fifteen years, has returned back to the U. K. from coverage in Aleppo, Syria. While she was out of the country her beloved mother died and Kate was unable to attend her funeral thanks to her alcoholic sister, Sally, who did not contacting her in time. Now Kate has returned to her childhood home in Herne Bay, Kent, to sign some documents and view her mother's will. But after covering wars for years, Kate is also suffering from nightmares and hallucinations. She hears the cries for help and voices of those people she encountered.

Feeling under siege is not a new feeling for Kate, though, as her father was an abusive alcoholic who regularly beat her mother. As she stays in her childhood home, all the memories of abuse come rushing back along with Kate's regular visions and nightmares from the wars she has covered. But this time Kate is convinced that she is not seeing things when she hears a boy crying for his mother and sees him in her garden. She is convinced that the woman next door, an Iraqi refugee, is hiding abuse by her husband and that the boy in in danger. The woman claims, however, that she has no son and that her husband is away.

In between chapters of Kate's experiences in part one of My Sister's Bones are excerpts of a psychiatrist interviewing Kate. We know Kate has been arrested for something, possible related to her hallucinations and hearing voices, and she is being held while her mental health is evaluated. How reliable of a narrator is Kate? Is she imagining things?

Kate is a fully realized character draw with skill and depth. Yes, she is flawed and we know she is suffering from her years of war coverage, but she still inspires empathy and support while you are reading. Her sister, Sally, is an unsympathetic character who is vividly described and desperately flawed. It seems that both sisters are so damaged from their dysfunctional childhood that normalcy or recovery may not be an option.

The writing in My Sister's Bones is exceptional and the plot is compelling and clever. This novel was impossible to put down. I devoured this book almost effortlessly - the pages just flew by -  and was surprised at the twists the novel took. Ellwood has several shocking surprises that I never saw coming. She also skillfully covers domestic violence and the violence in a war-torn country, with insight and sensitivity as she draws comparisons in her narrative between the effects of both violent situations on the victims. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown
Penguin Random House Group: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989465

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown is a recommended mystery about a missing woman and the family she left behind.

A year ago Billie (Sybilla) Flanagan went on a solo hike in the wilderness and never came back. Her shattered cell phone and a boot were discovered, but a body was never found. Now the family she has left behind are looking for closure and maybe some answers. Jonathan, her husband, is close to getting a declaration of death in absentia so he can collect the life insurance on Billie. They desperately need the money. At the same time he is writing a memoir about his love for Billie and their life together. Olive, their daughter, begins to have strange visions of her mother in which Billie is still alive. Olive is seeing her in different situations where Billie is talking to her daughter, telling Olive to find her.

As the two try to come to terms with Billie's death and absence from their lives, Jonathan begins to uncover secrets from Billie's past and lies she told him. Suddenly their lives together don't seem as clear as he once though they were, and maybe Billie was having an affair. Jonathan's stories about Billie become darker. Adding to the tension is Harmony, Billie's best friend and an old friend. What does she know about Billie's past and why is she always around. And then there is a coming-of-age moment for Olive.

This is a well-written but rather slow paced novel that keeps turning the same questions over again and again, with a few new details each time and little advancement of the plot until you are well into it. Alternating between the chapters detailing Jonathan and Olive's lives are excerpts from Jonathan's memoir about Billie. The excerpts aren't quite as successful in Watch Me Disappear as they have been in other novels.

Admittedly, I didn't find any of these characters that appealing, especially Billie. She's supposed to be independent and a force unto herself while also being whimsical and unique, but I can't believe that Jonathan didn't notice some of the discrepancies in her travels along with her darker nature.  I also think that when authorities were looking into Billie's disappearance while hiking, they would have likely look into her background much more closely and talk to some of the people that later Jonathan and Olive talked to. Olive's visions were presented as supernatural at first and it might have been a better choice to leave them at that and not present an explanation that never provided any true clarification.

The ending is satisfying, but, no matter how good the writing is, for me it felt like it took too long to get there. This is a much more subtle mystery that explores how well we know family members than a tension filled drama.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Local Girl Missing

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas
HarperCollins: 7/4/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062661159

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas is a recommended mystery about the past catching up with the present.

Sophie Collier disappeared in 1997, eighteen years ago, off the old, decaying pier at Oldcliffe-on-Sea. Her body was never found, but she did leave one of her shoes behind. Her best friend Frankie Howe (now Francesca Bloom) and her brother Daniel talked to the police at the time but no one could piece together what happened and why Sophie was on the pier that night. Now a foot that survived intact covered by a shoe has washed up on shore and is thought to be Sophie's remains. Daniel calls Frankie, who is now living in London, to come back to Oldcliffe while the remains are identified and to help him try to piece together again what happened that night. He believes this will give them both closure.

Daniel arranges a rental apartment that overlooks the pier, which Frankie finds disturbing. He wants Frankie to go with him to talk to some of the people who were at the nightclub the night Sophie disappeared. Did Sophie have a fight with her boyfriend or was she meeting someone else? He is hoping that someone saw something or is willing to provide new information after all these years. 

Frankie is unsettled by the rental where it seems that someone is entering it when she is gone and she is losing sleep because a baby is crying in one of the units nightly. The rental is always cold; the fire is hard-pressed to stay lit and it is the middle of winter. Even more disturbing is that Frankie seems to be seeing Sophie's ghost and someone is leaving threatening notes at her doorstep.

The narrative alternates from Frankie's point of view in the present to Sophie's from the past, in 1997. The information in the two narratives don't always correspond to each other. The two share a big secret, but Sophie has many things she hasn't shared with Frankie, and Frankie has also kept some things secret from Sophie. It is apparent that there is more going on than we realize and that Frankie might not be the most reliable narrator.

This is a secret-laden novel where more is going on and has happened than meets the eye. The writing was good. There are some twists you will easily guess or suspect and perhaps one you won't. For a successful business woman, Frankie seems a little too easily rattled, needy, and over emotional. She's also missing the effervescent sparkling personality she is reputed to have and comes across as whiny.  Douglas gives us the creepy feeling that everyone in town knows that Frankie is back, but never makes excellent use of this feeling once she establishes it. This is a satisfying novel and the ending is good, if not totally believable. This is a good choice for a summer beach read by an old pier, especially if there are plenty of drunk twenty-somethings hanging out on it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Out in the Open

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco
Penguin Random House: 7/4/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594634369

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco is a highly recommended stark story of violence, escape, and survival. It was translated from the original Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

In this bleak novel of drought-stricken landscapes and violence, a young boy escapes, runs away, from what he feels will be death. He is pursued by a man called the bailiff and his henchmen. In order to escape he must cross an arid plan where a source of water and food is uncertain, while keeping hidden from the men who are looking for him. When the young boy meets an elderly goatherd, he is offered food and water, and eventually he understands protection as the old man tries to keep the boy safe and help him escape, traveling at night, even as the violent, evil men who are pursuing him draw closer.

In this austere narrative names and dates don't matter and one day/night blends into another. The details explaining what caused the boy to flee his family are never explained. The old man and the boy are either on the move, trying to avoid the bailiff, or tending to the most basic of needs - water, food, bodily elimination, and sleeping - for them and the donkey, dog, and goats they are traveling with. The landscape is harsh, reflecting a dystopian world, but no explanation for that state of their drought-blighted land is given. The dialogue is meager, subdued. The threat of violence is always present, lurking nearby.

In the end this novel has an almost parable-like feel to it, if you ignore the violence, based on the boy's potential to escape and not perpetuate the threatening behavior he has been exposed to his whole life. The old man exhibits the traits of an adherent to Christian principles (goatherd/shepherd), and Carrasco has some Christian imagery included in the novel. The boy is almost like a disciple of the old man, who is protecting and instructing him, in his minimalist way, on survival and, ultimately, on becoming a man.

The writing is descriptive and elegant, even as the story is violent and bleak. The climax of Out in the Open is grim and devastating, but also gives a slight measure of hope and redemption. This novel may not be a ideal choice for a general audience, but if you liked The Road and lean toward literary fiction, Out in the Open might be a fully satisfying selection.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Reason You're Alive

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick  
HarperCollins: 7/4/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062424303

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick is a very highly recommended novel about a 68 year-old opinionated Vietnam vet who unflinchingly says exactly what's on his mind in his own way.

After David Granger wraps his BMW around a tree, tests reveal a brain tumor that is subsequently removed. David blames the war and his exposure to Agent Orange for the tumor. He also strangely kept repeating a name while in recovery - Clayton Fire Bear. Fire Bear was a Native American soldier who was his nemesis. Granger is telling us about his life while writing this report, the book, and he will eventually get to what happened between him and Clayton Fire Bear, but first, during his report, we get to learn a whole lot about his life, his pride in serving his country, and his beliefs.

He loves his granddaughter, Ella. He doesn't understand or respect his ultra-PC son, Hank. He detests his Dutch daughter-in-law. He loved his wife. He likes his gay friends, Gay Timmy and Gay Johnny. His best friend is Sue, a Vietnamese American. As Granger tells us about his life, in his own way and using his own word choice that some may find offensive, actually he is surprisingly open and supportive to other people. While reading, pay attention to his actions, not his words and you'll discover that Granger is a much more well-rounded, accepting, and compassionate person than perhaps his PC son and daughter-in-law, and others of their ilk, have ever been.

Yeah, he's opinionated, but in the end I liked this old vet quite a bit. It made me think that if we paid more attention to the good in others right now instead of seeking out the worst behavior, we could bypass much of the polarization of ideological camps that is currently happening. Sure, Granger says cringe-worthy things all the time, but his friends see beyond the words and his irascible behavior, and adore the man.

The Reason You're Alive is a fast-paced, clever, engrossing story about a man's life experiences. It is extremely well-written and, in some ways, an insightful, rewarding novel. I can guarantee you that if there is an offensive way to say something, Granger will say it. You will have to keep reading past the beginning and initial impressions, look beyond what Granger says and start noticing his actions. The David Granger you will know in the end is a much more complete picture of the man you see in the beginning.  All the characters are well developed and unique individuals, but David Granger is singularly one of the most unique, honest characters I've come across in a long time.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.