Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Trust Me When I Lie

Trust Me When I Lie by Benjamin Stevenson
Sourcebooks: 8/13/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492691150

Trust Me When I Lie by Benjamin Stevenson is a highly recommended mystery set in Australia.

Jack Quick produces a true crime TV series on the murder of Eliza Dacey, an English backpacker working as an itinerant grape-picker whose body was found on the land of Curtis Wade. Curtis was quickly charged and convicted for the crime. Jack's documentary is slanted to show that circumstantial evidence and police bias were responsible for his conviction. Jack's series results in the retrial of Curtis and he is set free four years after his conviction. Although Jack has private doubts about Curtis's innocence, he keeps quiet about his concerns. When another murder occurs after Curtis's release that seems to be an imitation of the first, Jack is conflicted. Is it a copycat murder or is Jack back killing again after his release?
Jack Quick is a well-developed complicated character with moral conflicts and more than his fair share of secrets and regrets. He travels back to the small town that was the scene of the first crime, essentially placing himself and Curtis in close proximity after the second murder. The prejudicial, insular, and isolated setting of the small Australian wine town becomes another character and plays an integral role in the plot as Jack searches for the truth.
The writing is straight forward, but there are twist embedded within that you won't notice - until you do. The tension increases incrementally and gradually, building to a climax in this novel. I will admit that it was slow going for a while and I had to purposefully keep focused on the plot until it picked up. Then it became clear that no one could really be trusted. The ending surprised me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Radio Dark

Radio Dark by Shane Hinton
Burrow Press: 8/20/19
eBook review copy; 130 pages
ISBN-13: 9781941681602

Radio Dark by Shane Hinton is a recommended quirky, dark, weird apocalyptic story.
Memphis is a custodian at a radio station in Florida when the apocalypse begins. In this end of the world scenario people fall inexplicably into a catatonic state where they require neither food nor water but they can be led around and posed. There is a DJ at the station who is still broadcasting and a local preacher who has a regular show when Cincinnati, an FCC field agent, visits the station with her procedure manual to enact emergency measures to keep the station on the air. As the power grid fails, Cincinnati's solution to keeping the station on the air and broadcasting to any survivors, is to build a tower of catatonic people (they are great conductors).

While there are a few comical incidences, there is no doubt that this is a weird, dark, bleak, odd story. Memphis is the narrator, but he is just relates the events without emotion or personality.  It is never revealed why the plague occurred, though the preacher blames it on the radio waves, on all the noise.  There is also no resolution to the plot. In some ways I feel as if I need to reread it in order to unearth any allegorical connections or references that I may have missed or some conclusion that slipped by me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Burrow Press.

We Are All Good People Here

We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White
Atria Books: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451608915

We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White is a highly recommended multi-generational drama that follows two college roommates over three decades.

The narrative begins in the radical 60's. Daniella Gold, from Georgetown, was raised by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother as a middle-class, liberal Unitarian. When she attends Belmont College in 1962, her roommate is Eve Whalen. Eve grew up as a privileged daughter of an old-money Atlanta family. Despite their different backgrounds, the two young women became best friends. For the first time, Eve actually notices prejudice and tries to improve conditions for their college house maid, but instead the results are harmful and ruinous. Daniella experienced prejudice before and continues to when she was told none of the sororities on campus would ask her to pledge due to her Jewish father. Eve, who had never experienced any prejudice, supports her and refuses to pledge in support of Daniella. They both transfer to Barnard College in NYC for their sophomore year.

At this time the two become more deeply involved in social issues and expand their awareness of the injustice and prejudice in the South. They also grow apart as Eve becomes more radical while Daniella works with others to bring about change and pursues her education. Daniella earns a law degree and marries. Eve takes up with a violent, radical anti-establishment, underground group and the two lose touch. When Eve is involved in a destructive tragedy, she turns to Daniella to overcome her radical past. The novel then jumps to the daughters of the two friends.

White excels at capturing the history, events, time, and place of the decades involved and covers the gamut of social injustices, racism, diversity, family, the South, history, religion, and the complexities of life. Starting with the sixties and moving through the decades to the nineties, the questions of social consciousness and morality continue to the end. If it sounds like it is a whole lot to cover, it is and although she does a very good job, it is almost too much to cover with any degree of serious insight. This means you have to go with the flow and follow the plot and the very basic social ramifications of the decades as presented to appreciate the novel. In reality, the entire time span is too complex to be captured in so few pages.

The quality of the writing is outstanding. The narrative is best viewed as women's fiction and a character study of the lives of these two women and their daughters. At the beginning of the novel when Daniella and Eve are well developed characters, but we lose this later in the novel when the focus shifts to their daughters. In some ways this was a regrettable choice as it makes only the early years of a woman's life as an interesting time. Sure we get glimpses of their lives, but lose the close contact with the characters.

In a chapter when Eve is radicalized, there is an incident with a cat that... (shaking head) is very hard to stomach and may be difficult for animal lovers to overcome. I hate having this scene in my head and I even skimmed through it after I realized where it was going.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Turn of the Key

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501188770

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware is a highly recommended psychological thriller with Gothic overtones.

Rowan Caine is hired for an unbelievably generous salary by a wealthy couple to be a live-in nanny for their children at their estate, Heatherbrae House, in the Scottish Highlands. The house has been remodeled and wired to be a smart home, where everything - lights, music, grocery lists, coffee maker, phones, cameras in rooms, and more - are all controlled by technology called "Happy." The three young girls who will mostly be in her charge seem sweet and the teenage daughter is away at school, so when Rowan learns she is in charge and being left alone with the girls in the house as soon as she arrives with only the handyman, Jack Grant, around, she thinks she can handle it. But all is not as it seems.

The narrative is told through a letter to a solicitor from a Rowan who is in prison awaiting trial for murder for the death of a child in her charge. Rowan wants to tell her side of the story, a story that wasn't listened to by her solicitor. Caring for these children is much more trying than she thought it would be. The baby is a handful, and the other two girls, eight and five, are hardly the sweet children she met at the interview. She heard that the house is believed to be haunted, but she doesn't believe in ghosts. However, Rowan is hearing footsteps at night and then there is the malfunctioning technology doing things like blaring music at night and operating lights at will.

This is an atmospheric psychological thriller that has a Gothic feel but combines it with creepy cutting edge technology in an isolated location. There is a feeling of unease and tension that is created right at the start and then both increase incrementally as the novel progresses. You know Rowan is in prison, but you don't know who dies and what happened. There are little clues, but they are carefully embedded in the narrative. You get the sense that Rowan might be an unreliable narrator, but you aren't sure. The ending was a big surprise for me, but it was satisfying and answered all my questions.

The characters are well developed, but bits and pieces are held back with good reason as Rowan tells her story in her own way, only revealing what she wants us to know, when she wants to tell us. This style helps increase the atmospheric creepiness factor. The other characters are all viewed through Rowan's point-of-view. Even the house and grounds become a character. Rowan may not be a likeable character, but she is believable in her thoughts and reactions.

The writing is quite good and I liked the way the plot unfolded and the story played out, carefully and incrementally. I was surprised that one of the huge plot twists which surprised me was withheld until the end. It seemed that it would be the first thing you'd want to tell a lawyer when you were awaiting trial for murder. Another final shocker, though, explained why. All in all, though, this was a very good thriller and I am going to look into more novels by Ruth Ware. 4.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery/Scout Press.

The Victim

The Victim by Max Manning
Sourcebooks/Landmark: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492667018

The Victim by Max Manning is a so-so examination of two choices and two outcomes during an attack.

Gem Golding, a public relations executive, has two choices when she is accosted in a parking lot by a man with a knife: to fight or to comply; to be a warrior or a victim. The attacker, Con Norton, is a psychopath who has made the attack a game where he alone decides what happens. Gem doesn't know this or the rules to his game, but her choice of how she will react will determine what he will do.

After the initial encounter where Con demands the keys to Gem's car, two different versions of the future are presented in parallel timelines. Chapters are alternately from the point-of-view of "Gem, the Warrior" or as "Gem, the Victim," and then within the chapters the alternate stories are told through Gem, Det. Insp. Elliot Day, Con, and Gem's boyfriend, Drew Bentley. Also present is journalist Matt Revell who is using Gem's story to advance his career. The alternate story lines oscillate between the two different outcomes based on Gem's initial decisions.

The two different story lines sort of reminded me of the choose your own adventure books my children were obsessed with while in grade school. In this case, while it was an interesting idea, I'm not sure it was a great choice. The choice to present the two different narratives in this rather contrived format simply didn't work for this reader in this story. Perhaps if Manning stuck with alternating simply on Gem as either a warrior or a victim it would have been a more successful alternate universe sort of story. Adding all the other characters and their reactions and choices to Gem's initial choice lessens the dual perspective of the consequences of her initial choice. I started out liking the book, thinking it might be an interesting way to tell the story, but it soon became tiring for me and the resolution to the two narratives were both not completely satisfying.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks/Landmark.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Perfect Wife

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney
Penguin Random House: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524796747

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney is a recommended domestic thriller featuring artificial intelligence.

Five years after her death, Tim Scott, the founder of Scott Robotics, has created a cobot, or companion robot, of his wife, Abbie Cullen-Scott. Abbie, the cobot, has memories, but not all memories, only those Tim has chosen to download. She knows she was an artist, mother, good cook, and a surfer. Tim, however, won't tell Abbie how she died. Abbie, while trying to regain whatever memories or knowledge she can, learns that she supposedly drowned in a surfing accident, but a body was never recovered and Tim faced murder charges in her death.

After starting out as an intriguing premise with the possibility of The Perfect Wife becoming a compelling addition to the science fiction genre, it soon became clear that little significant sci-fi evolution in the plot was actually going to happen. The novel, after the exciting opening, suddenly becomes a domestic thriller along the lines of the "new" woman researching the former wife. Few facts and little real usage was made of the AI needed to make a cobot and program one to resemble a dead person. In order to continue reading, I had to set my love of hard sci-fi aside.

The narrative unfolds through the points-of-view of Abbie the cobot and the Scott Robotics employees. The chapters alternate between the past and present and are told in the second and third person omniscient. It feels awkward when reading. What does work is the depiction of Danny, Tim and Abbie's Autistic son. Danny is the only character who felt real, believable. I'm afraid the rest of the characters fell a bit flat for me.

Viewing The Perfect Wife as a domestic thriller, with the new wife researching the previous wife, is what kept my interest in the plot. In that aspect, the writing certainly kept things moving and propelled the plot forward. The ending, however, was a let down, as were the many plot points left hanging.  This novel is okay - a good airplane book.

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

Strange Harvests

Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/6/19
eBook review copy: 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399562792 

Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett is a very highly recommended, fascinating look at seven uncommon natural products.

In a synthesis of travel writing, history, interviews, and nature writing, Strange Harvests is a captivating, engaging, and thought-provoking adventure. Posnett traces the current and historical use of seven precious natural objects from their historical origin to their harvesting for use. These natural items include: eiderdown, swiftlet bird nests, civet coffee, sea silk, vicuña fiber, tagua, and guano. As Posnett points out, "Each object served an important purpose in the natural world... yet its removal, its harvest, need not spell discomfort, mutilation, or death." The book includes notes and an index. 

"The eider is a fat seabird, more penguin than duck..." that can be found nesting in Iceland today where they are a protected species. Eiders don't naturally nest in large colonies but after years of co-habitation they will congregate close to humans for shelter and protection when nesting. They line their nests with eider down, which can then be collected after the eider's leave. If a harvester cares for the ducks, more will come to nest, which, in turn, will increase the amount of eider to be harvested. The coat of a vicuña is another incredibly soft, insulating fiber that is treasured. Vicuñas roam in the Andean puna,which accounts for the development of their coat. After facing extinction, vicuñas are now protected by the communities that have a stake in their survival, with the reserve of Pampas Galeras at the forefront of the efforts.
The black-nest Swiftlet makes nests that are edible and treasured by the Chinese. The nests have been a major export commodity, perhaps as far back as the T’ang dynasty (618–907). "During breeding season, both male and female birds begin to retch and chew, excreting small strands of a thick, gelatinous substance from these modified salivary glands lying below their tongue. This they spread in arched form across the cave wall, inserting dark brown or black feathers from their plumage. After thirty days, the initial arch has grown to form a shallow cup into which the bird lays one egg." These nests are made on the roof of caves and harvesting them is a physical challenge. Recently harvesters have been making birdhouses to attract swiftlets to live in buildings.

The story of civet coffee, or kopi luwak, is as riveting as it is somewhat disgusting. Civet musk has been collected and sold for years. A more recent development is collecting coffee beans after they have been eaten and excreted by civets, and selling this as kopi luwak, civet coffee. The digestive enzymes are supposed to add a distinctive flavor to the coffee. Along the same excremental lines, guano has been collected off of some eighty islands off the coast of Peru. These island receive little rain, so the guano built up and accumulated to vast amounts of organic fertilizer.

The tagua nut is from a palm, Phytelephas, found mostly in northwestern South America. It is creamy white, dense, and smooth and its cellulose is arranged in concentric circles. In the past, it was discovered that the tagua nut could easily be carved into buttons, figurines, and toys. Plastic has now replaced the market for tagua buttons, but there is hope among botanists and development experts that if people learned they could make money for the harvest of “nontimber forest products” (NTFPs), it might induce forest conservation.

Bivalve mollusks, such as mussels, clams, scallops, and pen shells, produce silken threads known as byssus. This sea silk or byssus, is used as an anchor by the mollusks to tether themselves to the seafloor against the push and pull of the waves. Underwater, the beards look like brown moss, full of algae and small shells, but when cleaned and combed, they appear to be golden threads, commonly known as sea silk. These threads have been prized for their shine and strangeness for nearly two thousand years. Harvesting them is now prohibited. Until October, 2016, a weaver in Sardinia who called herself the "Maestro Chiara Vigo" ran the "The Museum of Byssus" and claimed a history of weaving that discounted others. Now that the museum has been closed, other women in Sant’Antioco, the descendants of the weavers from Italo Diana’s school, are exchange their stories and reclaiming their heritage.

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