Thursday, August 13, 2020

Vesper Flights

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
Grove/Atlantic: 8/25/20
review copy; 288 pages

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald is a very highly recommended collection of 41 essays and meditations on the natural world. This is a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep.

As she writes: I hope that this book works a little like a Wunderkammer. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder. and... Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.

Vesper Flights fulfills her hope admirably. The essays are written in a poetic manner with an insight, clarity, and descriptiveness that immediately pulls you into seeing the natural world through her eyes and perhaps alter the way you currently look at the natural world. Humans tend to anthropomorphize the natural world rather than trying to viewing it realistically. Macdonald's descriptions and insight help assist in creating a true picture of the subject while providing insight into both the animal and human world. The writing is wonderful and the tone she sets helped bring a peaceful calm feeling to the forefront during a stressful time.

Contents include:  An Introduction; Nest; Nothing Like a Pig; Inspector Calls ; Field Guides; Tekels Park; High-Rise; The Human Flock; The Student’s Tale; Ants; Symptomatic; Sex, Death, Mushrooms; Winter Woods; Eclipse; In Her Orbit; Hares; Lost, But Catching Up; Swan Upping; Nestboxes; Deer in the Headlights; The Falcon and the Tower; Vesper Flights; In Spight of Prisons;  Sun Birds and Cashmere Spheres; The Observatory; Wicken; Storm; Murmurations; A Cuckoo in the House; The Arrow-Stork; Ashes; A Handful of Corn; Berries; Cherry Stones; Birds, Tabled; Hiding; Eulogy; Rescue; Goats; Dispatches from the Valleys; The Numinous Ordinary; What Animals Taught Me; Acknowledgements.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove/Atlantic.

Still Here

Still Here by Amy Stuart
Gallery Books: 8/11/20
review copy; 320 pages
Still series #3  

Still Here by Amy Stuart is the highly recommended psychological thriller and third book in the Still series.

Clare O'Dey (O'Kearney) is working with Detective Somers and looking for Malcolm. He has disappeared and no one knows where or why. Clare travels to the oceanside city of Lune Bay to look for clues as to Malcolm's whereabouts and that of his missing wife, Zoe Westman. Malcolm is a suspect in Zoe's disappearance, but it appears that Zoe's wealthy family might be more likely to have something to do with it. Clare begins to look into Zoe's family business and the murder of her father years ago. The entire community of Lune Bay seems to be hiding something. There are two young women who went missing from there, but no one seems concerned beyond Somers and the father of one woman. At the same time she is still hiding from her abusive husband Jason and is always wary he will find her.

This is one series that it would be beneficial to read the whole Still series in order: Still Mine, Still Water, and Still Here. I missed the first, read the second and now the third, and I have to admit I enjoyed Still Here more because I had read Still Water. I knew Clare, Somers and Malcolm and this time around I actually liked Clare much more as a character and felt she was well-developed. Of course, this could be because I had met her previously. Knowing background information made this an compelling thriller with a plot that stayed interesting from start to finish. It could be due to the fact that Clare is in danger this time, which ups the unease and nervousness while you read.

The plot is strong in Still Here. Clare is intuitively following clues she uncovers from a variety of people she encounters and even finds a few allies in her investigation. There is a lot of tension because we know in the beginning that Clare is going to be hurt and in a desperate situation. Then the narrative jumps back to four days earlier and follows the action leading up to the incident described in the opening. There are so many secrets and half-truths being shared with Clare and she needs to untangle what is true and where that clue leads. The resolution is very satisfying this time and I was glad I read this third novel in the series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Somewhere in the Dark

Somewhere in the Dark by R. J. Jacobs

Crooked Lane Books: 8/11/20
review copy; 289 pages

Somewhere in the Dark by R. J. Jacobs is a highly recommended psychological thriller/mystery.

Jessie Duval's life is finally on the path to recovery. She is living in Nashville, has an apartment, sees a therapist she likes, and enjoys her prep job with a catering company. After a childhood of abuse and neglect, which included a year living in the dark in a locked closet, she is learning coping skills to overcome her issues. The one rule she must legally follow is to stay away from singers Owen and Shelly James. Jessie was obsessed with them for a reason and followed their concert tour for a year, but after therapy she understands what happened and has changed. Although she is still fragile, she is now doing well for herself.

Jessie just likes prep work, but her boss convinces her she will do a fine job serving at a graduation party after his help quits. Shelly James shows up at the party with Owen and their daughter, and Jessie tries to keep out of their sight. Subsequently, when the James's hire their catering company for a party, Jessie knows she should stay away, but she is finally talked into doing the job by a surprising source. After the party, when Shelly turns up dead, Jessie is a suspect, but there is a whole lot more going on than people realize and Jessie may have the key to who did it.

The narrative starts slowly as Jessie, her problems, and her background are introduced and explained. Since Jacobs is a psychologist, he delves into her trauma, background, thought processes, anxiety, and coping mechanisms resulting in Jessie being a sympathetic character that you will trust and feel supportive of her recovery. She is very observant and, although broken, she is in many ways also stronger than people realize. Jessie is a great character to build a story on because you want her to to be safe and continue on the path to wellness.

The novel is well-written, with several strengths and a few weaknesses. Obviously, the creation of the character of Jessie is a strength. She is a captivating character and she does carry most of the plot. Some of the supporting characters are not as fully realized, but it doesn't affect the plot negatively as the action starts and keeps moving. After the slow set up the plot takes off at a brisk pace once Jessie starts searching for answers. Everything quickly reaches a breakneck speed up to the twisty, surprising climax. The conclusion is uplifting and hopeful, which is a winning way to end the narrative.

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

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Until I Find You


Until I Find You by Rea Frey
St. Martin's Publishing: 8/11/20
review copy; 320 pages

Until I Find You by Rea Frey is a recommended domestic thriller.

Rebecca (Bec) Gray is nearly blind with a degenerative eye disease. She is also a recent widow, a new mother, and then her mother passed away after she came to live with her. To say her life has been stressful is an understatement, but Bec is managing to get by. Her photographic memory helps her to count steps and remember the number she takes to reach various things and places. She continues to meet friends for coffee, takes walks, and meets friends at the park. The only problem is that she feels like someone is watching her. It also appears that someone is getting into her house. But when she is sure that someone has switched babies and the one she has now is not her son Jackson, no one is certain she is correct. Bec must rely on her own instincts to find out what happened to Jackson and bring him home.

The search for Jackson is tense and Bec is portrayed as a strong woman who is facing the adversity head on, even when it is thought that she may be suffering from a psychological disorder. Her friends can't tell if the baby she now has is Jackson or not. The police don't believe her either. After a slow start, the plot picked up and held my attention. Frey does do an excellent job portraying a capable woman with a visual impairment. This is in some ways more of a domestic drama combined with a romance, although there is a mystery included. I'm not a fan of the ending, but it does provide a fitting conclusion to the narrative.

So, I feel a little sheepish admitting that I didn't care for the characters of Bec and her friends almost from the start and they all seemed the same. Perhaps it was the obvious depiction that this is how the wealthy young mothers live and I certainly didn't know people liked this when I was a young mother - Nannys, plenty of time for walks, trips to the park, a support group, going out for coffee, attending a neighborhood party, make plans to redo the house... Yeah, you could do some of that with a three month old, but not as easily as described. And why didn't Bec accept help as soon as she thought someone was stalking her and going into her house? Then once she thought someone had switched babies, uh, blood tests people. Jackson's blood type would already be on record. If that was the same blood type, then genetic tests are available. It also seemed that her fainting spells and panic attacks were too convenient a plot device. Okay, I liked the novel, but I didn't love it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillan.

The Quiet Girl

The Quiet Girl by S. F. Kosa
Sourcebooks: 8/11/20
review copy; 384 pages

The Quiet Girl by S. F. Kosa is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Alex Zarabian knew it was love at first sight when he met his new wife, Mina Richards, at a book signing. Now the two have had a disagreement and Alex arrives in Provincetown to make amends to Mina. He is surprised to find Mina absent from her cottage and her wedding ring in a bowl on her desk. Alex searches for her and then files a missing person report to the police, who believe she left on her own. Alex, though, is certain that Mina had a secret and he needs to discover it to find her. While looking for Mina, Alex encounters Layla, a young woman who may have information, but one who also can't recall her own past. Alex needs to discover what Layla knows in order to find Mina.

The novel follows two different storylines. One is Alex's first person account of his search for Mina and the other is Layla's story, a woman who is suffering from memory loss and facing a murderer. The two dueling narratives are presented in alternating chapters and appear to be two different realities. The novel does start out slow and the interjections of Alex's stress and problems at work while he is looking for Mina seem to be an unnecessary distraction. Once the story picks up the pace and the more information about Mina's past Alex uncovers, however, the novel becomes more complicated and begins to grab your attention.

This is truly a complicated psychological thriller where the end game will be hard to guess. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered and shocking revelations that will be exposed along the way. The whole novel is a twisty tale of secrets, deception, lies, and excuses that need to be uncovered to figure out what is really happening.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Veritas

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar
Knopf Doubleday: 8/11/20
review copy; 416 pages

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar is a very highly recommended true story of a religious forgery and a scandal.

The story starts in 2012 when Dr. Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, announced at a conference the discovery of an ancient fragment of papyrus on which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene "my wife." If true, a married Jesus would change the 2,000 year history of Christianity. King titled her discovery "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife," which served to provoke Biblical scholars and threaten traditions. Debates over the small scrap of papyrus raged as its authenticity was brought into question. Author and journalist Ariel Sabar set out to investigate the mystery of where the manuscript originated. His search is a detective story in its own rights as he traced it back to rural Florida and an internet pornographer. This is the story of what happens when a scholar decides that the story she wants to believe is more important than the actual truth.

The account is in two parts. The first details how King came to learn about the manuscript, her background, and the events from her shocking announcement to her fall and retraction after carbon dating and an article by Sabar. The second half has the author becoming part of the narrative as he finds the owner of the forgery, Walter Fritz. He searches for and follows the provenance of the manuscript, uncovering the questionable authenticity as well as other irregularities in the experts King used. He also finds information that may point to at least part of the motivation behind King's original decision to look at the small scrap of papyrus. This is a well-researched and documented true life detective story about a forgery that fooled a scholar, but it also examines the motivations of all the people involved.

One central fact which emerged is that King allowed the social impact of what she wanted to believe was real blur her search for truth and authenticity. Even things she should have questioned or reserved judgement about were overlooked for the story she wanted to be true. "Her ideological commitments were choreographing her practice of history. The story came first; the dates managed after. The narrative before the evidence; the news conference before the scientific analysis; the interpretation before the authentication. Her rich sense of what Christianity might be - if only people had the right information - too often preceded the facts." This is a fascinating account of a forgery and scandal. It is lengthy and can be a slow read at times simply due to the amount of research, facts, and information Sabar has included in the account.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The River Home

The River Home by Hannah Richell
HarperCollins: 8/4/20
review copy; 368 pages

The River Home by Hannah Richell is a highly recommended character-driven family drama.

The Sorrell girls are all returning to their mother's Somerset country home called Windfalls for a last-minute wedding.  "Lucy, the bride, has begged her loved ones to attend - not telling them that she has some important news to share once they’ve gathered. Her prodigal baby sister, Margot, who left home after a devastating argument with their mother, reluctantly agrees, though their family home is the site of so much pain for her. Meanwhile, their eldest sister, Eve, has thrown herself into a tailspin planning the details of the wedding - anything to distract herself from how her own life is unraveling - and their long-separated artist parents are forced to play the roles of cheerful hosts through gritted teeth." Honestly, with a description like this what could possibly go wrong?

There are several mysteries/questions/secrets that need to be answered in this complex family drama. Exactly what was the horrible event that happened to Margot and why does she need to apologize to her romance-writing mother, Kit? What is Lucy's secret? What is going on in Eve's marriage? How will their parents, Kit and Ted, react? Richell expertly gets all the players and pieces described and in place and then leaves tantalizing clues about what will follow.

Chapters follow the present day preparations and drama while occasional chapters from the past explain the history of Kit and Ted's relationship and the painful secret that is the cause of Margot's estrangement and absence for eight years. There are an abundance of strong emotions and hurt in both mother and daughter that needs to be explained. The chapters from the past clearly show the pain that needs to be healed in all their lives today, but the chapters based on the current day also show relationships that need mending. This is a narrative that focuses on the intense relationships between sisters, mothers, and daughters.

The writing is excellent and the emotional turmoil of all the characters is clearly presented. All of the characters are all well developed and placed amidst the beautifully described, lush setting of Windfalls.  The setting is in stark contrast to the secrets, past and present, which will eventually be told. As a mother, I have to admit that Kit was a difficult character for me to like or relate to in any way. It seemed to me that Kit needed to do some introspective thinking and maybe also do some apologizing rather than just expecting an apology form Margot. That aside, I did want to know what happened to this family and was hopeful that there would be some healing between them.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.