Monday, September 20, 2021

The Spires

The Spires by Kate Moretti
9/21/21; 316 pages
Thomas & Mercer

The Spires by Kate Moretti is a highly recommended slow burning thriller featuring dual timelines.

Penelope Cox is shocked when Willa Blaine, an old roommate she hasn't seen for 20 years shows up at her door saying she needs help escaping from an abusive relationship. She says she just needs two weeks to decide what to do next. Penelope has enough stress with an unemployed husband, two teenagers, and a precarious work situation, but she agrees if only because of their past history. Twenty years ago, after graduating from college, Willa and Penelope lived with three other friends, Jack, Bree, and Flynn, in an old church which was converted into a house. We know a fire destroyed the church house and the group of friends. Now Willa is back, seemingly being helpful and grateful for a place to stay but there is an unsettling undercurrent of something nefarious being planned.

The chapters switch between the present day occurrences and that of 20 years ago. Flipping between timelines doesn't always work well in this novel simply because the past isn't quite as compelling as the current situation. A better choice might have been less chapters set in the past with a more condensed and succinct story line. We need to know what happened but perhaps don't need all of the immature angst of the characters. In the present day it takes enough suspension of disbelief that Penelope would put up with some of Willa's actions as long as she does. Most adults under these circumstances would have said, "I'm sorry but this isn't working. You need to leave and find someplace else to stay."

Moretti does keep you reading though, so she gets credit for that feat and for writing reliable thrillers that keep the suspense high. Penelope is a fully realized character in both timelines as this is her story from the past and the present. You will understand why she acquiesced to Willa staying with her after no contact for so long, however you won't understand why she didn't tell Willa to leave. There are a few short chapters set in the present from Willa's point-of-view that are consequential. This is an entertaining novel, but readers may also need to know that most people are going to be able to predict exactly what is going to happen (with the exception of an unrealistic twist) as the premise is not original. 3.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

When Ghosts Come Home

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash
9/21/21; 304 pages

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash is a highly recommended character driven murder mystery set in 1984.

In the middle of the night Sheriff Winston Barnes and his wife Marie are awaken by the sound of a low-flying plane and immediately know something is amiss. Nothing should be landing at the small airport on Oak Island, N.C., so Winston heads over to investigate. What he finds is a large plane has crash landed, the cargo hold is empty, and there is the dead body of a local man on the grass near the landing strip. The dead man, Rodney Bellamy, is the son of a local civil rights activist and math teacher and attended school with Winston's daughter, Colleen. Winston starts the investigation before the FBI steps in and Bradley Frye, the rich-boy developer who is Winston's opponent in the upcoming reelection race in a week, shows up to make his presence known.

To further complicate life, Colleen secretly leaves her husband and comes home to visit her parents. She recently lost their first child at birth and is still grieving. His wife Marie is battling cancer. Frye and his buddies show up flying a confederate flag from their truck to threaten and intimidate Bellamy's widow and Jay, her 14 year-old brother who is staying with her. And rumors are flying around that the plane may have been flown by drug smugglers.

The characters are finely drawn, complex, and realistic in their actions and feelings. The narrative is told through the viewpoints of Winston, Colleen, and Jay. All three are very sympathetic characters who are ordinary people struggling with their own challenging circumstances and have very specific individual thoughts and experiences that closely affect their actions. While the murder investigation involves the plane and who shot Rodney, the real focus is the inner lives and thoughts of these characters. Frye is an anomaly as he is depicted as more of a caricature than a realistic antagonist.

The investigation is almost a side-story to the development of the characters, their inner thoughts, and their interactions with each other and the community. While the plot is compelling, the real pull of this novel is the realistic characters and their personal thoughts and struggles during this particular time period and in their specific circumstances. There is a solution to the mystery, and, although there are holes in the plot, many of the internal struggles of the characters do reach some sort of conclusion. The final denouement is unexpected and shocking.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lean Fall Stand

Lean Fall Stand by Jon Mcgregor
9/21/21; 288 pages

Lean Fall Stand by Jon Mcgregor is a highly recommended novel of an unforeseen accident and the struggle of recovery.

Robert 'Doc' Wright is a 33-year veteran technician at Station K in the Antarctic who arrives there with two postdocs geographic researchers, Thomas and Luke. When Thomas wants to take some pictures they make the disastrous choice to bend the rules, heading out without sat-phones and separate. When a blinding storm quickly rolls in, they are struggling to contact each other. It is at this point that Robert/Doc has a stroke and is unable to walk or communicate. Anna, Robert's wife flies from England down to Chile where he has been hospitalized. Robert, who cannot communicate, is unable to tell anyone what happened. Anna, who is an academic researcher studying climate change, has to set her work aside to become a caregiver.

The narrative is told in three parts: Lean, Fall, and Stand. Lean is the beginning of the novel, at the research station and the accident. Fall and Stand switch to Anna's new overwhelming and thankless role as caregiver to her husband who cannot convey his thoughts or needs. His basic care and therapy takes over Anna's life. Rather than the struggle for survival in the harsh Antarctic, the fight is for survival after a stroke and for caring for a stroke survivor. It is a sad tale that moves incrementally and slowly toward hope.

The choice on presenting some of the story through a stream-of consciousness style captures both Roberts broken language struggles due to the aphasia and Anna's endless tasks required to care for him. There is a lack of strong character development that held back some of the connection that might have otherwise been present for the characters. If you have ever known anyone recovering after a stroke, it might help you engage more completely with the characters.

This is a subdued, delicate novel that portrays the struggles of care and recovery with the same focus as surviving any battle. While I appreciated much of the novel, The lack of real connection with the characters and the repetition of Robert's struggles with his speech held me back a little. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Catapult.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Necklace

The Necklace by Matt Witten
9/7/21; 304 pages
Oceanview Publishing

The Necklace by Matt Witten is a recommended thriller.

The narrative follows Susan Lentigo currently and twenty years ago. The novel opens during a fund raising event for Susan. Twenty years ago, soon after they bought the beads to make a necklace together, Susan’s seven-year-old daughter Amy was murdered. Now the man who was convicted of her death is going to be executed and Susan is planning to travel in her dilapidated car from Upstate New York to North Dakota to witness the execution. Her neighbors and friends in her close knit community have donated money to help her get to North Dakota. Susan has never recovered from the death of her daughter. When she discovers a clue involving the necklace Amy made twenty years earlier, the search is on to find more information and the real killer before another young girl is killed.

While your sympathy is with Susan, she is also her worst enemy. She seems emotionally unstable, foolhardy, rude, and quick to anger. She makes several poor, inexplicable choices that are inconceivable and detract from the plot. The clues she is following and her interactions with others aren't entirely believable. The plot will capture your interest, however, in spite of Susan's character. The search for clues and several fortuitous incidents help Susan find the information about who could be the real killer and get her to North Dakota where she finds the FBI agent she worked with twenty years ago and seeks his help.

The plot is easy to follow and read quickly in both timelines, and the switching back and forth in time works in the novel. Susan's search for the truth will grab your attention and even though many of her trials during the trip are a result of her own poor choices, you will still want her to find closure and hope she finds some sense of peace. Once she actually arrives in North Dakota the sense of danger increases. While the ultimate denouement is satisfying, it is not a shocking surprise. 3.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Oceanview Publishing.

Monday, September 13, 2021


Echogenesis by Gary Gibson
8/10/21; 360 pages
brain in a jar books

Echogenesis by Gary Gibson is a recommended science fiction novel.

Sam Newman and fourteen others wake up inside pods near a damaged landing craft on an unknown planet. Apparently no one knows why or how they ended up on this planet, in this situation. They are also in new, young bodies, unlike the aging bodies many of them remember. The survivors have also already separated into groups, with those who were military in one and the others, composed of engineers, scientists, etc. in another. Now their overwhelming need is to figure out how to survive.

This is an action-based sci-fi story where you have to set disbelief aside completely and go with what happens, in spite of the improbabilities. There is a decent idea here but the execution wasn't quite as good as the concept. The world building is so-so. There is an interesting variety of characters, but no real character development to increase your engagement in the plot. What this leaves is an entertaining novel with several flaws that you can read quite quickly while trying to find out what happened and why. There are several twists in the action and the final denouement was actually worth slogging through some of the problematic parts of the plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author via NetGalley.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
9/14/21; 336 pages
Knopf Doubleday

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a very highly recommended historical fiction novel set in Harlem during the early 1960's.

Ray Carney makes a living for his family selling furniture, some gently used. It is 1959 and he and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child. They hope to be able to move into a bigger apartment someday. Despite his background he strives to generally live an upstanding life - with a few exceptions when his cousin Freddy gives him some random stolen item to sell. Then his life begins to change when Freddy tells a group planning to rob the  Hotel Theresa, the "Waldorf of Harlem," that Ray can act as a fence for the stolen items. Once Ray's name is out there, the struggle begins as a group of several different underworld figures enter his life, including the mobster Chink Montague, WWII veteran Pepper, the purple-suited Miami Joe, among others and he begins leading a double life. Suddenly Ray needs to decide how much loyalty he owes to Freddy versus his care for his family and business.

Whitehead shows amazing skill and care in creating his characters and setting them into a specific time and place in history, from 1959 to the Harlem riots of 1964. The atmosphere and setting makes you feel as if you were there, in 1960's Harlem and experiencing everything along with Ray. The compelling plot follows Ray's dilemmas in this family and crime novel that can be funny, serious, and somber, but is engaging from start to finish. It is an entertaining novel that captures the time period and lovingly tells the story of one man and his family. The writing is sumptuous and memorable.

Ray is an appealing protagonist and you will like him, always hoping he finds a way through the dilemmas placed in his path. The tests of his character are numerous and what Ray learns along the way is just as important as what he learned in the past. In a real sense Harlem is another character in the story as Whitehead lovingly captures it during this period in time.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The Antisocial Network

The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees by Ben Mezrich
9/7/21; 304 pages
Grand Central Publishing

The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich is a very highly recommended account of the GameStop short squeeze when a group of amateur investors, gamers, and Internet trolls took on one of the biggest hedge funds on Wall Street. This comprehensive nonfiction book reads like a thriller and is the compelling true story of what happened.

Most people heard about the members of a Reddit group called WallStreetBets, who dubbed themselves "apes," when they started investing in Game Stop stocks in early 2021 and sent the price per share rising sky high which resulted in a short squeeze costing Wall Street hedge funds billions of dollars. Perhaps you also heard "The Tendieman" sea chanty. The Antisocial Network is truly a real life accounting of a David-vs.-Goliath movement. Mezrich starts the narrative back at the beginning, following the story of average people who were members of WallStreetBets, like nurse Kim Campbell, hair salon employee Sara Morales, college student Jeremy Poe, and Keith Gill who livestreamed on a you tube channel called "RoaringKitty." He tells the story of the co-CEOs Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt who started Robinhood, the investing app that was being used by the "apes" because it allowed ordinary people to trade on the stock market without brokerage fees. And he covers Gabe Plotkin of the hedge fund Melvin Capital and Ken Griffin of Citadel Securities, along with others.

Mezrich's does an excellent job presenting what happened. The events leading up to the news breaking story of the Game Stop short squeeze is clearly presented in an understandable manner that is accessible for interested readers. Even though you know what happens, it really is a page-turner. I could follow the technical information about trading and investing, although I was also following the story when it was happening. I thoroughly enjoyed The Antisocial Network from start to finish. 

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