Thursday, February 23, 2017

Never Let You Go

Never Let You Go by Chevy Stevens
St. Martin's Press: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250034564

Never Let You Go by Chevy Stevens is a tense, nail-biting thriller that will capture your rapt attention from beginning to end. It is very highly recommended. Set aside the time to read this all at once (which you will be doing anyway, so you might as well plan for it).

Eleven years ago, Lindsey Nash escaped an abusive relationship. It was a miracle that she managed to get out alive with her daughter, Sophie. Her ex-husband, Andrew, was arrested when he drove drunk in search of her, causing an accident that killed a woman. He was sent to jail and Lindsey and Sophie went on to start a new life in Dogwood Bay, a lakeshore town in British Columbia. She has her own business cleaning houses. Sophie is now 17 and getting ready to finish high school.

Now Andrew is being released from prison. Lindsey is sure he can't find her, but when disturbing things begin to happen, it appears that someone is watching her and even entering her home, she contacts the police. As the threats escalate, it seems to be clear that Andrew is trying to extract revenge on her.

Sophie, unknown to Linsey, has sent letters to her father when he was in prison and she agrees to secretly meet with him when he is released. He claims he has changed and that he would never harm Lindsey, but is he telling the truth? Clearly someone is stalking Lindsey and means her harm.

The story is told in the alternating voices of Lindsey and Sophie. It also shifts back and forth in time, chronicling Andrew's escalating abuse and control over Lindsey. Lindsey's terror is palpable as she relates the story of Andrew's increasingly violent abuse and control over her, even to the point where she is scared for Sophie's safety.  Sophie's chapters are all present day. She was just a child when Andrew was sent to prison. She wants a father, but also knows about Lindsey's fear over his abuse.

This is a masterful fast-paced thriller. The writing is incredible. The plot is skillfully presented as the suspense just keeps building on itself and you don't know who you can trust. Let's just say there is more than one suspect. Lindsey and Sophie are well developed, imperfect characters with flaws, talents, and doubts, who are placed in an impossibly strained situation.  There are a couple twists that I didn't see coming at all that took my breath away.

Get this novel! Chevy Stevens is proving she's a writer who can consistently create an excellent novel that is sure to ramp up the tension, surprise you with some twists, and leave you satisfied with the ending. Never Let You Go is now added to my list of best books of the year.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

Bleaker House

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens
Knopf Doubleday:3/14/17
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385541558

In Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World author Nell Stevens writes about spending three months in the Falkland Islands, during the winter, all in pursuit of writing her first novel. This memoir is a very highly recommended compilation of her life, visiting the Falklands, and her first book.

After completing an MFA degree at Boston University, Nell Stevens is offered a fellowship that allows her to live, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world while she writes her first book. Others may choose Paris or a retreat, but Stevens decides to go to Bleaker Island in the Falklands, located on the southern tip of South America in the Antarctic waters of the South Atlantic - during the winter months. She chose this because she felt like it would be the perfect way to eliminate distractions and help her focus on writing her novel.

After staying for several weeks in Stanley , the capital (which has little to offer, but does have seven pubs) she learns about the residents great mistrust of Argentinians and journalists, and the careful records kept of family trees due to the limited population. Stevens then proceeds on to Bleaker Island where she is the only guest in a guest house. The island is either population 1 (Stevens) or three when the owners are on the island.

"Why do you do it to yourself?" wonders her mother.  A novelist friend helps answer the question, "That's the thing about being a writer. Every bad experience you have is good material."

The only way for Stevens to get to Bleaker is by air, which means that Stevens has to pack in all her provisions for her stay and there is a weight limit. She has carefully packed enough food for 1,085 calories a day, which requires counting out her daily ration of raisins and almonds. On the island she tries to write her novel surrounded by sheep, penguins, caracara birds, and cattle on the stormy, snow and sleet covered wind swept island. And she does start a novel -  a terribly bad novel.

I found Bleaker House entertaining and engaging. In it Stevens creates a mosaic of her writing life. She has compiled pieces of ideas together among the stories of her travels, observations, and experiences on Bleaker that include snippets from other fictional writing she's done, life experiences and stories, writing while at a job, and parts of the novel she wrote on Bleaker. While she doesn't come away with a good novel, she did leave the island with a book. It is a wonderfully insightful and honest look at the creative struggles behind writing a novel that includes wry humor, writing advice she's received, personal anecdotes, and how you can't escape yourself even when you are the only one on a remote island. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Drifter

The Drifter by Christine Lennon
HarperCollins: 2/14/17
uncorrected proof; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062457578

The Drifter by Christine Lennon is a recommended coming-of-age story set in Gainesville, Florida and NYC during the 1990's.

Elizabeth (Betsy) is successful, working at a large art auction house in NYC. She and her husband, Gavin, have a four-year-old daughter, Remi. So why is Elizabeth having nightmares and why is she finding it so difficult to let Remi attend preschool? The answers are found 20 years ago, back in 1990 when she was in college.

Betsy and her two closest friends, Ginny and Caroline are all attending the University of Florida where they first met as sorority sisters. Now rebellious and independent Betsy has turned in her pin. She and Ginny are still close, but she's had a rift with Caroline so their interaction with each other is, at best, tolerant, but usually tense and prickly. It is August and Betsy and Ginny have spent the summer as roommates. Betsy rides her bike to the bagel shop where she works. She drinks too much and hangs out with Ginny, waiting for Caroline and the students to return and classes to start. Betsy just has one more semester until graduation and she has just met Gavin. When a young woman is brutally murdered in town it doesn't become frightening until there is a second victim and it appears that there is a serial killer on the loose.

Lennon opens with Elizabeth in 2010, trying to let her daughter attend preschool, but still fearful for Remi's safety and apparently having nightmares again. Then it jumps back to August 22, 1990, when Elizabeth was Betsy and finishing college. The Drifter has this great opening, a hook to capture the reader's interest - why is Elizabeth so frightened and having nightmares. Then the novel jumps back in time, when she was in college, and you assume answers will be coming. Lennon does capture the college life, sororities, and divulges Betsy's back story.

The answer about what happened to Elizabeth in college does come, but it seems almost an afterthought. Then the novel moves on with Betsy and Gavin in NYC where they are trying to start their careers and carelessly doing too many drugs. Betsy is now Elizabeth and she is still haunted about what happened in Florida. The problem is that we read about the traumatic event and then the novel goes on and on about the minutia of Elizabeth's life. Actually, what she needed was a therapist to help her work through what happened. I guess my main problem with The Drifter is that plenty of people have had events just as or more traumatic happen in their lives, but they don't allow it to take over. They also don't tell everyone they meet about it.

Lennon does do an excellent job with her descriptions and in setting the time and place for her characters. You can feel the heat and humidity, appreciate the relief a cold blast of AC brings. Betsy is a well-developed character - even while you are shaking your head over her depression and self-induced anxiety. There is a surprise reveal at the end that really is anticlimactic after the years of Elizabeth's angst. Read this one for the descriptive writing rather than the plot.

Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of this novel from HarperCollins for the TLC book tour.  


Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Book of Etta

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison
47North: 2/21/17
eBook review copy; 314 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503941823
The Road to Nowhere #2

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison is the second book in the post-apocalyptic series that started with The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. You have to read the first book in the series before The Book of Etta. About a hundred years have passed since the time of the unnamed midwife when a plague wiped out nearly everyone, but especially women and children. Childbirth is still dangerous.

Etta/Eddy comes from Nowhere, the village of survivors (located in the present day Ozarks/Odarks) that reveres the unnamed midwife. Etta wants to be a scavenger, not a midwife or a mother, the only two recognized positions for women in her village. She goes out on forays disguised as Eddy where she looks for useful items and rescues any women/girls being sold by slavers she might meet on the road. After one foray into Estiel (St. Louis) where the powerful leader called the Lion is located, she now tries to avoid the city. His followers raid nearby communities, demand tributes, loyalty and especially women and girls to all be taken for the Lion.

There are small communities that are becoming established now and each of them deal with the gender inequality differently. Women in Nowhere have hives, where one woman has a group of men. The Lion keeps a harem of women and rules by fear and power, but there are also catamites (castrated boys) for his men's use. (Girls are being cut too, so genital mutilation is an occurrence now.) There are several other settlements introduced here that have their societies set up differently.

The big, overriding theme in The Book of Etta is the question/complication of gender identity, inequality, and the firm roles in place for various communities. Etta identifies as Eddy and is transgender but is not allowed to be Eddy in Nowhere, where women are either midwives or mothers with a hive, while other communities have different rules in place for their men and women. Each different community Eddy visits is like a different, weird societal cult where there are specific roles assigned based on gender. Eddy doesn't have a place.

I was eager and excited to read the second book in the planned trilogy because I loved The Book of the Unnamed Midwife so much. The writing is still very good. I wasn't as captivated by this second installment, however. It could be the second-book-in-a-series syndrome since it is obviously a bridge to the final installment. Although it is still brutal and gritty, the focus and anxiety over gender questions among several characters is almost overwrought, taking up more pages of anxiety than would seem necessary in this changed world.  It will be interesting to see where Elison is taking this series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of 47North.

Things We Lost in the Fire

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Hogarth: 2/21/17
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451495112

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez is a highly recommended collection of 12 ominous and dark short stories set in contemporary Argentina.
These stories capture the superstitions, instability, violence, and strangeness that can pervade everyday life in Argentina and turns this into more ominous stories. It will be surprising when you start the first story and see it morph into something completely different, setting the tone for the whole collection. Peculiarities and aberrations abound among the settings of these stories. Some will shock, some will horrify, and some will leave you looking around wondering what is really lurking nearby in your neighborhood.

The stories include:
The Dirty Kid: A woman becomes obsessed with a homeless pregnant woman and her son who live by an abandoned building across the street.
The Inn: A haunted tourist hotel was built on a former police barracks.
The Intoxicated Years: An account of the increasing drug use of five friends. 
Adela’s House: An abandoned house may be more than it seems.
An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt: A tour guide for Buenos Aires murder sites resents the attention his wife shows their newborn. 
Spiderweb: A broken down car helps a disintegrating marriage to crumble.
End of Term: A girl is self-mutilating.
No Flesh over Our Bones: An anorexic woman finds a human skull in the street and attaches human qualities to it.
The Neighbor’s Courtyard: a woman is sure a neighbor has chained up a young boy.
Under the Black Water: A polluted river may hold more than it seems.
Green Red Orange: A man secludes himself in his room, seeing no one in person.
Things We Lost in the Fire: Women are self-immolating in protest of domestic violence.

The stories are all well written, although, naturally, I did enjoy some more than others. They manage to capture life in Argentina and the belief among the citizens, as well as the violence, crime, gangs, etc., especially against women. The stories are open-ended, with no real explanation or conclusion, leaving you to wonder what will happen next. This is a wonderful collection.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Hogarth.

All That's Left to Tell

All That's Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe
Flatiron Books: 2/14/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250085559

All That's Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe is a novel about telling stories set in a disturbing framework.

American Marc Laurent is a midlevel Pepsi executive who is taken hostage in Pakistan. Every night his hands are tied behind his back and he is blindfolded when a woman who tells him to call her Josephine visits the room where he is kept. She wants to know who will pay a ransom for his release. When it becomes clear that Marc is estranged from everyone he knows in the USA, she begins to demand that he tell her stories about his life, focusing on his daughter Claire, who at age 19 was murdered a month ago and Marc did not return to the USA for her funeral.

As Marc slowly reveals stories from his past, Josephine weaves tales about a future Claire at 34 years old. This Claire survived the attack, is married and has a daughter. She is traveling to Michigan to see her estranged father who is dying. On the way Claire picks up a hitchhiker named Genevieve, who makes up stories for Claire about Marc’s life after he divorced her mother.

This is a beautifully written novel that consists of a story made up of stories within stories that share common connections. The line between reality and story-telling blurs and what is real and what is fiction becomes unclear. The truth of Marc's situation may be less rewarding than the stories. The stories themselves become more real, more compelling, than reality. The stories are what develop the characters, real or imagined. The plot is the story telling - or the plots within the stories. It's all very consciously self-referential; I kept picturing an ouroboros while reading.

The writing is powerful and masterful - there is no fault to be found there. For some reason I bristled at being played with emotionally as Marc's reality stands in stark juxtaposition with the stories being crafted and so lovingly told. Sometimes it's okay if an author messes with my mind while I'm reading; sometimes it just begins to annoy me and feels like too much manipulation. I'm afraid that this time the set up for the story telling felt too contrived for me and, in view of current events, a bit insensitive and careless. It is clear from the start that Marc, a hostage who is surely going to be executed by these terrorists who are forcing him to tell stories, may find some comfort from the stories being told to him, but I can find no charm in this, no matter how exquisitely written. Yes, people and ideas can live on in stories, but stories don't negate the ugliness behind taking a person hostage to ransom them.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Our Short History

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 3/21/17
advanced reading copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616206222

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein is a heart-breaking, insightful, emotional, compelling novel about a dying mother and her love for her son.

Karen Neulander is a successful New York political consultant who was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. She's doing everything she can to live as long as she possibly can, but she is dying. How can she leave her six-year-old son, Jake (Jacob), behind? While Karen makes plans for Jake to live with Allie, her sister, she is writing this book, the book we are reading, for Jake to read when he turns 18. She is trying to be as honest as she can about her feelings, what they are both experiencing, and how much, how fiercely she loves him.

When Jake asks to meet his father, Karen is unsure. Dave didn't want children and made that clear years ago when Karen told him she was pregnant. He even question if he was the father. Karen has had no contact with him since then and he has no idea he has a son. When she finally contacts him, she is shocked and annoyed to have him respond so positively. He is excited to meet Jake and wants them to meet as soon as possible. Karen is experiencing a plethora of emotions. Dave was the love of her life and he broke her heart. Now he wants to bond with her son, the son she has loved and raised without him. Dave's a smart lawyer too. Will he now try to take her son?

There is no question that this is a heart-breaking tear-jerker of a novel that will have you crying your eyes out more than once. Karen is brutally honest in the book she is writing for her son, although she is really writing it for herself. Grodstein perfectly captures a mother's fierce and protective love for her children and the sacrifices she is willing to make. She is trying to prepare for her death while knowing she will have to give Jake up. She's going to leave him behind - and how can that happen? She is fighting to live for Jake and then Dave waltzes in and effortlessly wants to be a part of Jake's life now. There are no good answers, only raw emotion, pain, and trying to make the best plans/choices.

The writing is excellent and captures Karen's struggles and pain with a startling amount of wit and humor. She is depicted as a real woman. We see her love and devotion for Jake along with her flaws and determination. Her death is not coming easy, and you can see Jake's struggles to understand and her sister's pain as she prepares to let her go. The only real drawback to the book is the framework that it is a letter to be read by her son in the future. Perhaps a diary format would have made more sense, but then perhaps we would have lost some of the emotional impact. In any event, I sobbed my way through this novel and enjoyed every moment of pain. 4.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.