Monday, August 29, 2016

We Are Unprepared

We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Reilly
MIRA: 8/30/16
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778319436

We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Reilly is a story set in Vermont about a broken relationship and an impending superstorm. It's either so-so or recommended, depending upon what you can personally tolerate in a disaster/climate change/politically preachy/bad relationship/needy neighborhood child/debut novel.

Ash and Pia have moved from Brooklyn to Isole, Vermont, a town of 6,481 people. Their desire is to live a simpler life, sort of return to the land and rely on themselves. After being there for 3 months, the forecast of the impending disastrous superstorm is predicted, with as many as 30 hurricanes along with heatwaves, blizzards, drought, and fronts of various kinds. It's a climate change believer's dream, or er, natural expected outcome based on scientifically proven measurements.  Pia is a neurotic mess and teams up with local preppers, which Ash didn't know until after the fact. Ash wants to team up with local authorities.

The novel covers the current action, with Ash reflecting upon the past and his relationship with Pia. Ash admits at over half way through the drawn-out-too-long narrative that: "The truth is that Pia had always been impulsive. I worked hard to see her as a passionate free spirit, but I knew she had a tenuous grasp on sanity most of the time." Well, Ash, I had that figured out pretty much at the first few pages. As the narrative follows the extremely slowly arriving storm (predicted in Early October, hits in the Spring, and doesn't happen in the novel until chapter 19), the marriage falls apart. To be honest, they were never really together from the beginning and the only reason they had some semblance of a relationship is due to Ash's denial of Pia's mental problems and his desire to smooth things over, explain behavior away, and keep it together.

Ash's relationship and desire to help neglected 7 yr. old neighborhood boy, August, is one redeeming quality to We Are Unprepared, which could have used some more redeeming story lines and characters. Other than that this is one you'll read for the disaster. You can skim ahead for that because it happens late in the book. I appreciate what Kirkus reviews said: "By that point, 19 chapters into the book, the reader is eager for the damn storm to occur." Yup, that pretty much summarized my thoughts.

The writing is okay, nothing spectacular. Ash is the only character you get to know, but he and Pia are both formulaic stereotypes of a certain segment of the population. So, read this if you just want to read a disaster novel with blizzards, snow, and flooding. It's akin to a sci-fi channel disaster movie (or at least those I noticed back when I actually had cable). In fact, you could just watch a disaster movie and do just as well. Those of you who have experienced huge snowfalls and then floods from Spring melting might just see this as an "eh" book because you've lived it with less fanfare and hand wringing.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Wolves by D. J. Molles
Blackstone: 8/30/16
eBook review copy; 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9781504725910

Wolves by D. J. Molles is a dark, gritty post-apocalyptic western. It is highly recommended for those who like plenty of gun play, violence, and a doomed man on a mission.

Huxley is a man who has lost everything. The world as we know it ended for him. He was living on an agricultural commune with his wife and daughter until the Slavers came, killed his wife, and took his daughter to sell. In her dying breath his wife told him the man who took his daughter had a scorpion tattoo on his neck. Now Huxley is crossing the Wastelands, heading east. He is saved from dying when another man, Jay, gives him water. The two travel together, on a mission to avenge and kill slavers.

As Huxley and Jay travel the wastelands, tracking the path of a band of slavers as they head east, he acquires a rag tag band of followers. They are hard men on a mission, to kill all the slavers who have ruined their lives. The two are motivated by pain, blood and death now, as they leave a path of destruction in their wake. It is a tragic portrait of a man pushed to his absolute limits.

This is a non-stop dark, bloody, violent, gritty, and intense novel. The influence of classic westerns is obvious in this saga of a man on a mission of vengeance and rage toward the people who took his daughter and killed his wife, as well as anyone who enabled the Slavers to continue their evil enterprise. It's also a long novel, so be prepared for the sheer overload of violence you will encounter within these pages.

The writing is excellent and above reproach. The character development, descriptions, and world building is exceptional. Honestly, the only drawback is that sometimes this is a hard novel to read because of the tone. It is a dark novel, very ominous, gruesome, bloody, and harsh, with relentless violence. Huxley is a driven man, by grief, and revenge, but also buried deep, by the love for his wife and the daughter he needs to save. There is redemption at the end, but an overwhelming amount of violence lead up to it.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

End Point

End Point by Peter Breakspear
Troubador: 8/28/16
eBook review copy; 212 pages
ISBN-13: 2940158391538

End Point by Peter Breakspear is a so-so sci-fi thriller.

End Point opens with a mysterious object that fell to Earth in Wales being investigated by a special forces team lead by Tom. It seems that several of these objects have recently been sent to or launched at Earth. Even more startling is the fact that these objects have been on Earth for many years, and can also be found on Mars, and Venus. What are they, Are we being watched by some mysterious beings, and are they manipulating the environment?

While the start is intriguing in this competition winning novel, intriguing enough to keep me reading, the action falls apart into a formulaic recounting of what happens that bleeds all the excitement and intrigue out of discovering the purpose of the objects. There is a lot of laundry-list-action: they go hear, this is said, that is said, Tom thinks this. Breakspear had some good ideas; it's just the execution that needs work. He needs to make us care about the characters, good or bad, and develop their characters, while describing the setting and place us there, in the action. As a reader, I want to connect with these people and feel the desperation behind their search for the answers before the world ends. That didn't happen. The failure is in the writing, which could improve with more experience. This novel can be considered a YA novel.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
HarperCollins: 8/4/15 (reprint)
P.S. Trade Paperback; 816 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062311085 
Penn Cage Series #4

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles is a very highly recommended thriller that had me mesmerized and totally invested in finding out what was going to happen next for the whole 800 pages. I can hardly wait to start the next book in the trilogy, The Bone Tree, and am anxiously awaiting the third installment, Mississippi Blood, due to be released in March 2017. This is an excellent book on all points: great writing, check; intricate plot twists, check; complexity, check; well-developed characters, check; suspense, check, check, check. Forget my stuck-overnight-at-the-airport book rating. You'd miss them calling your next flight. In fact, just save yourself the trouble and postpone your trip to finish Natchez Burning and jump right into The Bone Tree. Greg Iles just made another fan.

"If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth." Penn Cage agreed with this writer's sentiments for years, but now he realizes that, as his distant relative, Robert Penn Warren wrote: "There is always something."  Penn's father, Dr. Tom Cage, is a beloved family doctor in Natchez so it is unthinkable that he could be accused of murdering Viola Turner, the African American nurse who worked for him in the 1960's, let alone arrested for this. Viola was dying and returned to Natchez to spend her last days there. Tom wants to prove his father is innocent, but Tom won't assist his son in this endeavor, invoking doctor-patient privilege.

There is a whole lot more going on and hidden, including an off-shoot cell of the local KKK that call themselves The Double Eagles. These men have been terrorizing and killing people for years. Somehow Dr. Tom and Viola are connected to them and the death of several men in the 1960's. We know what happened from the opening chapters in part 1 of the story. Part 2 jumps ahead to 2005. More is explained as the book continues through several different characters, including Penn, Dr. Tom, Penn's fiancée Caitlin Masters, reporter Henry Sexton, and several of the bad guys.

This is a tale of illegal activities, racism, greed, murder, corruption, and brutality, as well as the different legacies a family may be passing on to the next generation. Penn must decide if he will choose his father or truth. Penn is a crusader at heart, one who wants to right wrongs, but what if the wrongs involve his father, or result in his father's death?

Incredible, rich, vivid, descriptive writing highlight this fast-paced, engrossing thriller. You need to realize that there are some very vivid descriptions of violent acts in Natchez Burning, but they are also crucial to the plot. Iles does an remarkable job allowing the facts and secrets to slowly emerge as characters uncover the monumental truth of the past and the present, piece by piece, and realize how far-reaching the gross injustices reach.  The character development is phenomenal. Iles has created characters that are memorable, complex, flawed, and totally believable.

Natchez Burning is amazing. I am, quite simple, stunned at this incredible novel. This is surely in the running for my list of top ten novels of the year.

Although this is the fourth novel featuring Penn, it is a stand-alone novel for the new series of three Penn Cage novels. While I need to get the previous three, you can start the series of three with Natchez Burning. And, currently (during the writing of this review) the digital edition is 1.99!

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes. 



Friday, August 19, 2016

The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/23/16
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735221086

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena is a recommended novel of suspense.

Anne and Marco Conti are attending a dinner party at their next door neighbors. Their sitter cancelled on them at the last minute and they know Cynthia and Graham don't like children, so they have left 6 month old Cora asleep next door, in their attached home. They have the baby monitor with them and are taking turns checking on her every half hour. As the party drones on, Anne is drunk and bothered by how much Cynthia is shamelessly flirting with Marco. When Anne finally persuades Marco to leave after 1 AM, they return home to find their front door open and baby Cora gone.

Detective Rasbach knows there is more going on than the couple is telling him and he works to slowly uncover hidden secrets and potential theories regarding what happened to Cora. It doesn't appear that anyone else has been in their home. However, the back door motion sensor light has been unscrewed and the Conti's garage door, which opens to the alley, was left open. There are tire tracks not from the Conti's car in the garage. It seems that someone went out the back door with Cora, but why was the front door open? Could the Cont's be covering up something more sinister?

This is a riveting, suspenseful debut novel that had me glued to the pages, overlooking, but noting, all the many flaws while I read. The chapters alternate between narrators so you can follow what each character is thinking as the search progresses. There are plenty of secrets which mean there are plot twists and reveals of secrets along the way. And, let's face it, in any case, real or fiction, with a missing baby the parents are the main suspects.

I kept reading wanting to know what happened next, as Lapena throws one surprise after another at the reader. Many of these twists I saw coming so they just confirmed my predictions, which is sometimes a motivation for reading a mystery. Some of the plot elements are also just a tad bit too convenient.

Now the flaws are numerous. The characters seemed very much all convenient cliches: the doubting detective, extremely wealthy parents, disappointing son-in-law, poor first time mother with postpartum depression and other issues (and postpartum depression is real, but somehow marginalized here), the sexy next-door-neighbor, a difficult fussy baby. Add to that the lack of real character development, and it's hard to like or truly care about these people.

In the end this was a hard one for me to rate. The ending almost led me to a two star rating. It is not an outstanding-must-read-book-of-the-summer. The writing is okay and the plot is pedestrian, BUT I did read it wanting to know what happened next, which is sometimes the whole reason to read a mystery. This is worthy of airplane book status. It's going to keep your attention, provide entertainment, and will be easy to jump back into during your trip.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Walking with Plato

Walking with Plato by Gary Hayden
Oneworld Publications: 7/12/16
advanced reading copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781780746562

Walking with Plato by Gary Hayden is a highly recommended walking tour of Great Britain, with philosophical pondering shared along the way.

Hayden and Wendy, his wife, decided to do a three month "End-to-End" walking tour from the northeastern tip of Scotland to the southwestern tip of England. They started in John o'Groats and made their way to Land's End (JoGLE), a 1,200-mile trek, enduring blisters, sore backs and feet, and weather along the way. The eight chapters list the towns they went through during that part of their travels.

Rather than an account detailing exactly what they did from a detailed journal kept along the journey, Hayden, who was 49 when they undertook the journey, shares what he remembers as he recalls their travels. He had no plans to write a book about their experiences, and is glad he didn't keep a journal because it would have ruined the experience, reducing it to something that needed to be recorded and sold rather than lived.

There are stories and thoughts shared about the areas they traversed and some of the sights they encountered along the way. You can appreciate Walking with Plato without any geographical knowledge, but it might help American readers to have a clear knowledge of the names and places, including walking trails in Great Britain, or at least a map handy to follow Hayden and Wendy's path.

Along the recounted journey, Hayden contemplates some thoughts from other thinkers. Bertrand Russell  said "The secret of happiness is to understand that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible." Hayden thought that it makes sense because, if you go through life thinking the world owes you anything, you will be disappointed. However, if you accept that the world cares nothing for you or your plans and that bad things happen to everyone, you can stoically wait/hope for something better to happen.

He also ponders the writing of Epicurus, and concluded that the more you have, the less you appreciate it. The key is to subtract from your desires to appreciate the simple, wholesome things in life. If you are walking 1200 miles and usually cooking outside and sleeping in a tent, the simple pleasure of a coffee and a biscuit along the way takes on a new satisfaction.

Hayden felt that the walk was benefiting his mental health along the way. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who believed that "the striving for meaning is the most powerful and motivating force in human life, and that a sense of purpose is essential to mental wellbeing." Frankl's thoughts summed up Hayden's feelings about the goal to walk JoGLE, "Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on what one has already achieved and what one still has to accomplish."

Walking with Plato is a worthwhile travel memoir, and every reader can appreciate Hayden's thoughts along the route. It might be more appreciated a bit more by those who know the geography compared to those of us not living in Great Britain who had to stop and look at a map. (No judging please, I could follow walking travels across the USA quite easily.)

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher via Library Thing for review purposes.

Cold, Cold Heart

Cold, Cold Heart by Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse: 8/23/16
eBook review copy; 40 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062663290

Cold, Cold Heart by Karin Slaughter is a very highly recommended dark short story.

When the story opens, Pam, 52, is on her way to California for the third time in her life to deliver something important. We learn that a few years early her emotional abusive and controlling ex-husband, John (aka Jon), contacted Pam to tell her he was dying and wanted her to visit him in California, sending her a first class plane ticket. Pam was unsure about going, but saw it as a potential opportunity to extract some closure or revenge.

Her ex was a serial adulterer and a liar. When their marriage fell apart after the death of their son, John blamed Pam. Then he wrote a book, changing his name to Jon, on healing after a loss that was full of slander and cruel indictments of Pam, things millions of people have read and believe. Now her ex lives with a 19 year-old Pilates instructor and is a multi-millionaire. Pam doesn't want his money. She wants a different kind of payback.

Exceptionally well written and perfectly executed, I really, really liked Cold, Cold Heart. I was cheering Pam on and wanted to high five her, saying "You go girl!" While there is no doubt that this is a rather dark story, there are plenty of ex's out there that deserve some special attention. This one is for all the women who put up with their own versions of "John."

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Liberty Street

Liberty Street by Dianne Warren
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/16/16
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399158018

Liberty Street by Dianne Warren is a recommended novel about a woman confronting her past.

Frances Moon, a woman "nearer 60 than 50," is on a vacation in Ireland with her partner of 20 years, Ian, when she blurts out two secrets she has been keeping from him since they met: She had a child who died when she was 19 and she is still married to another man, if he is still living, although he wasn't the father of the baby. Understandably, Ian is upset and heads home to Canada. Frances follows him back to Canada. After a few tense days, Ian tells her that she is a person who resists happiness before he leaves on what may or may not be a business trip. Frances decides to quit her job and head to Elliot, the small town in northern Saskatchewan where she grew up. The story then shifts back in time to when Frances was a child in the 1960's growing up on a dairy farm with her parents.

Liberty Street is extremely well written. Warren deftly establishes the time periods and settings with skill. You will feel what life in a small rural town in Saskatchewan was like for Frances and others. The characters are well developed, including secondary characters. However, Frances's past story unfolds with great restraint and none of the characters are highly emotional.

While Frances is a well developed character, she is also an unlikable character who seems to go through life sabotaging herself, lacking any ambition beyond rebelling, denial, and escapism. After making mistakes, (which we all do, especially when young) she didn't seem to learn or grow as a person from them. Perhaps the disconnect I felt toward to her character is because Warren doesn't allow Frances to share her motivations for many of her acts. It's okay to have an unlikable character, but for most readers to connect with these broken people, we need a glimpse of some kernel of truth, some admission of her motives, her mistakes.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How to Party With an Infant

How to Party With an Infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Simon & Schuster: 8/9/16
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501100796

How to Party With an Infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a highly recommended humorous, yet moving account of being a parent and a person.

Mele Bart is a single mom living in San Fransisco. After a few failed attempts at meeting other moms, she's managed to find a mother's support group where she fits in with the members. Her group joined the official San Francisco Mommy Club. Now SFMC is having a cookbook competition and Mele is filling out the entry form. Actually, the whole book is Mele filling out the form and telling corresponding stories about those in her support group while finding the perfect recipe based on the story shared. Mele is also trying to deal with her daughter Ellie's father, Bobby, and his upcoming wedding. He wants Ellie to be a flower girl.

Mele and her friends are dealing with their feelings of inadequacy and failure, so their stories reflect this fact. In between the story telling, Mele is very candid about her life and experiences, including those she's had with other SFMC groups and her ex. Interspersed in the entry form stories are excerpts from an online message board. Seriously, the mommy wars rage as people express their firm beliefs about one thing or another, while one member is wonderfully funny and satirical.

This is a great selection for anyone who can relate to Mele's search for like-minded moms:
"She smiles to herself, remembering those early days, when she was one of those friendless parents - the ones that smile too eagerly at other moms and apologize if their babies sneeze. The ones who use lame pickup lines like "I like your burp cloth" or "How do you like your Britax Roundabout?" Mele would hit up all the hot spots - Gymboree, Day One, Music Together, playgrounds, parks, and museums - hoping to meet someone. She’d see other mothers in groups, laughing on polka-dot throw mats and think: Where do I find them? And how do I act once I do?"

I found How to Party With an Infant a wonderfully entertaining light read, which I need every now and then. It is very well written and the stories are funny, poignant, touching, and hopeful. If you have ever struggled to find or fit in with a mommy group, you will understand Mele's situation. Or if you've ever experienced a part of the mommy wars, you'll find yourself laughing and commiserating with Mele. The fact that she found a group of such diverse individuals with stories that are sometimes raw and heartbreaking to share is heartening. Mele is very honest in what she writes for the cookbook entry, both in her feelings and observations and her friend's stories.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Navigating Life

Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me by Margaux Bergen
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/2/16
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594206290

Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me by Margaux Bergen is a recommended guide to life for those just starting out on their own. Bergen wrote the eight essays for her own children, starting when her oldest daughter, Charlotte, was nine, and gave her the guide when she left for college.

Bergen writes:
"Three questions: Who are you? To what are you committed? How will you serve? Ask them over and over. You may never fully answer, but the process of posing these questions raises the possibility of developing a conscious and caring engagement with the world.
My vision: that this record will arm you with a loving and practical text as you leave and start navigating your way through life, so you may always ask the questions: who am I and how may I be of use to others?
My aim: to raise, kind, civilized, thoughtful, and aware children. And please, Jesus, ones that will also learn to pay their bills on time, receive more than they broadcast, empty the dishwasher, write timely thank-you notes, read the paper, and look kindly on the world.
My hope: that this life chronicle might offer a map to guide you in becoming adults who are curious and empathetic, strong and warm, practical and, above all, good listeners."

"This is what you need: the ability to write clearly, to think deeply and critically, and finally to own your knowledge, which will arm you in the world of work and grown-ups. The ability to develop a point of view, even if you aren’t an expert, is valuable. So read the paper, listen to the news, and talk to your friends. Then own your opinion. Or, as I have done occasionally when I can’t make up my mind, talk to someone whose mind you respect. Never underestimate the value of a good conversation. That is one of the first rules of adult life."

The essays are mainly a series of anecdotes and reminiscences of Bergen's life, therefore it feels more like an autobiography. It is an honest account and full of practical tips, but most of the suggestions about living well that are more universally applicable to all are at the end of the book.

The beginning starts strong, with all the hopes of what she'd like to share, as expressed in the excerpts above, but then the book became way too anecdotal for me. I have read much stronger and more succinct treatises on starting out your adult life that were better suited to a much wider audience of new graduates. This is hardly a good guide for everyone who is starting to navigate adult life. It's worthwhile, but the appeal will largely be limited based on the content.

One of the most insightful comments is this: "Words hang in the air. They lodge in your soul. They can unwittingly inform our actions and responses for decades." This is clearly a Biblical principle that people have been exposed to for centuries. In fact, many of the words of wisdom and little gems found within this discourse can be found in countless other places. The question is more on presentation. If you like anecdotal stories with your words of advice then this may be a good choice.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
Random House Publishing Group: 8/9/16
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812992731

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich is a very highly recommended account of his grandfather, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, an early brain surgeon, and his most famous patient, Henry Molaison. If you were mesmerized by The  Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, you won't want to miss Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich.

Investigative journalist Luke Dittrich covers not only the story of Henry Molaison, an epileptic man who is considered one of the most important neuroscience human research subjects; he also explores the history of neurosurgery and lobotomies, and his own family history. Along the way ethical questions are raised regarding the treatment of Henry, famously only known as Patient H.M. for years, and how proprietorial researchers are on sharing  information.

Henry and his family agreed to brain surgery in order to stop the debilitating epileptic seizures he was having. While it did stop the seizures, it also causes short term amnesia. Henry could no longer remember any new information or form any new long term memories. After this he became Patient H.M., one of the most studied individuals over a span of decades, but also one whose identity was closely guarded.

Dittrich takes the facts of Patient H. M. and early neurosurgery and makes the story personal. His grandfather was a pioneer in the field and the one to perform the surgery on Henry, but Dittrich also tells of his mentally-ill grandmother, and a family secret. In Patient H.M. the author takes an extremely interesting piece of history and makes it even more compelling because of the personal connection Dittrich has to it, while describing the limbo Henry found himself in, with no ties to recent memories.

The writing is very good and this nonfiction account reads like a novel. I was immersed in Dittrick's family history, as well as the story of Henry himself and the history of neurosurgery. The legal fights over Henry's body and the ending was, well, stunning. You have to read this book which is sure to be in the top nonfiction of the year.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

The Girl Before

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/9/16
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101982358

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen is a highly recommended novel that examines human trafficking and victims.

Clara Lawson's home has been raided by armed men. Now her husband, Glen, is in jail, she's in a psychiatric facility, and her daughters have been taken from them. Twenty-three year old Clara was raised by Glen's parents, Mama Mae and Papa G. She's loved Glen from the first time she saw him and they married when she was 16. Now he's gone, telling Clara as he was taken away to say nothing so Clara is not talking and not eating. The FBI agents are calling Clara "Diana" and trying to get more information from her. She isn't talking - but what has happened to her "daughters?"

The narrative is told in "Then" and "Now" chapters that alternate between the past and the present day Clara. Clearly Clara's current daughters aren't really her children and the girls she grew up with at Mama Mae's and Papa Glen's house weren't her sisters. The girls have all been told, past and present, that their parents didn't want them so they are now being cared for by the Lawsons. The girls are being trained for a future with wealthy "clients." As the story becomes clearer, we know that Glen and his parents are involved with various human trafficking ventures of young women and girls, as well as brothels. Clara's daughters are being raised/trained by her the same way Clara was trained, which makes Clara both a victim and a victimizer.

The tough part of this novel is Clara. I truly wondered how she could be so stupid and naive to not realize what was happening around her. This makes it extremely hard to relate to her or empathize with her situation because she could have chosen to admit the truth. Clara's pregnancy seems to be the impetus for her to face reality. This gives her character some redemption in the fact that she starts to realize what was really happening over the years, admits some brutal truths, and also addresses the abuse she received.

The Girl Before is addictively readable and kept my attention from beginning to end. I never fully reconciled my initial dislike for Clara, which is the one drawback of this novel for me. Human trafficking is such an insidious crime that it is hard to like anyone who has any part of it, even when they started out a victim themselves. The alternating chapters are very effective in creating a feeling of tension and apprehension. You know something is going to happen and that there is more to the story than Clara is admitting.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/2/16
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 399562600

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst is a very highly recommended, original modern family drama.

Alexandra and Josh Hammond are raising two girls, Tilly, 13, and Iris, 11. They have struggled with the challenges of raising Tilly, who is on the autism spectrum and has officially been diagnosed as PDD-NOS, or "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified." Tilly can be remarkable, but she can also be overwhelming. Alexandra has been talking and getting advice from Scoot Bean, a child development counselor/parenting guru. The Hammond's have decided to sell their home, get rid of most of their possessions, and accept the invitation to join Scott Bean in the establishment of a family camp. Camp Harmony is a wilderness camp located in New Hampshire. More importantly, it is a place that focuses on families with special needs children.

Once they arrive, it seems that Scott, while charismatic, is also much more controlling than they thought he would be.  Camp Harmony begins to resemble a cult.

The story is told through three different narrators: Iris, Alexandra, and Tilly. Iris tells the story of what happens at Camp Harmony. Her observations are clear, precise, and very perceptive. She shares details that raise some red flags and help give the reader a reliable and complete picture of Camp Harmony. Alexandra shares the backstory, how she and Josh met, raising the girls, the different struggles they have had with Tilly, and how Scott Bean helped. Tilly has entries written from an unspecified place and time. They are astute, stunning monologues that show the way Tilly thinks and give glimpses into the future of the Hammond family.

I thought this was a brilliant literary novel. The writing is wonderful. The alternating narratives help create a feeling of anticipation and suspense as information slowly builds up and increases the tension. You will be finding yourself reading as fast as you can to find out what happens next. Scott Bean is a character, but he can also stand for an idea, a concept - yet another new way to approach autism.

The narratives also help develop the three lead female characters. They are complex individuals with their own frailty and failings, but also strengths and talents.  Parkhurst explores what makes up the fabric of a family bond and the experiences that help cement the relationships. She honestly examines parenting a child on the spectrum, and how that can feel through the eyes of one individual woman.

I totally agree with the reviews that mentioned that Harmony would be a perfect choice for bookclubs. There is more here than the story of a family looking for some help, some answer.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Crown/Archetype: 7/26/16
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101904220

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a very highly recommended science fiction thriller that is ultimately about the importance of family and the choices we make.

Jason Dessen is happily married to Daniela and they have a 15 year old son, Charlie. Both Jason and Daniela gave up dreams for their futures when she became pregnant and they choose to marry and start a family together. Now, instead of the brilliant career in physics research that he imagined, Jason is a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Daniela gave up her career as an artist. Their lives aren't what they dreamed of when young, but they have a good life.

Everything changes for Jason when he is kidnapped, drugged, and sent to an alternate universe, a universe where the Jason Dessen there chose the career path and developed a way to reach the multiverse, or inter-dimensional space. Some string theorists have long thought that dark matter is composed of something different than ordinary matter and it may be the key to the multiverse and alternate realities. Jason 2 discovered a way to travel the multiverse. Now he has switched places with Jason to experience what his life would have been like if he had married Daniela.

Jason is now in Jason 2's world and the company Jason 2 is working for needs answers from him that he can't provide. Jason is determined to try to get back to his family, but it isn't quite as simple as it seems. He's in a world where people are going to imprison or kill him and the only escape is into a multiverse where there are limitless alternate worlds.

The multiverse is tied to the paradox of Schrödinger's cat. Basically, referring to Wikipedia, Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It is an interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. The scenario presents a cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead, as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. Until the event is observed, quantum mechanics treats it as a third state where it has neither occurred or not occurred.

Excellent writing and admirable character development make this an exceptionally compelling novel. The suspense increases as Jason finds himself in this unthinkable situation. Tension and apprehension escalate as Jason tries to navigate his way home without any real guide (other than, briefly, a fellow traveler). The only way to figure out how the multiverse works is through making choices. The narrative uses the science fiction elements of a multiverse as a vehicle to focus on the struggle Jason goes through to try and get back to those he loves, which makes it a novel about the importance of family and how the choices we make on a daily basis effect our lives.

While there have been many novels about alternate realities and the multiverse, Blake Crouch's Dark Matter is a welcome addition to the genre and will make a great movie someday. 

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Girls in the Garden

The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell
Atria Books: 6/7/16
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476792217

The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell is a highly recommended novel of suspense.

Due to tragic family circumstances, Clare and her two daughters, Pip and Grace (on the verge of turning 12 and 13), have moved into an apartment where the neighborhood shares a large (3 acres), picturesque communal garden spot. The neighborhood has a playground and garden areas for all the residents to enjoy. The girls make friends in the neighborhood.

But before we learn any of this, we know that something terrible has happened to Grace, It happens right at the start, when Pip is trying to take care of her drunk mother and Grace is not home yet, presumably still out enjoying the neighborhood block party. When Pip goes out to look for Grace, she finds her unconscious and bloody, lying in the rose garden.

At this point the narrative jumps back in time, to when Pip, Grace, and Clare moved to the neighborhood. We see the girls observe and meet the neighbors, and make friends. The story is mainly told through Pip, Clare, and Adele, a neighbor and mother of three girls Grace befriends.  Part of Pip's dialogue is told through letters she has written to her dad, including some drawings, who is away. We learn the backstory. We learn about the history of some of the residents in the neighborhood. We know that a girl died in the park years before and that her death might be connected to what is happening now.

You need to meet these people, learn their history, note observations made by some of the characters (especially Pip) and keep track of it all. You know something awful is going to happen in the near future, which increases the tension as you meet the neighbors, who could all be suspects. The Girls in the Garden is definitely a character driven novel. Jewell does a masterful job creating these characters and then slowly developing the intricate plot around them. There are several suspects, but who would have hurt Grace? And will Pip's observations lead to an answer?

With the opening  we know something awful will happen. There is one great quote which I simply have to share that captures the tone of the novel:
"I'm talking about kids, Mrs. H. Terrible, dreadful, blasted awful kids. They've all got a darkness inside them. They've all got the capacity for evil. Give them free range over a piece of territory, like that out there, and you’ve got Lord of the Flies. You cannot afford to take your eye off the ball for a second. Not for even a second...."

This quote captures the feeling of the novel perfectly. The children and very young teens are allowed much more freedom to run around and do as they please. The garden, surrounded by their neighborhood, has apparently left the residents, adults and children, with a false sense of security. The suspect isn't cut and dried; there are multiple suspects.

Excellent writing combined with anticipation of forthcoming answers and a gradual increase of tension as more and more of the story is told make this a worthy page turner.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

The Girl from the Sea

The Girl from the Sea by Shalini Boland
Creative Adrenalin: 6/9/2016
eBook review edition; 306 pages
ISBN-13: 9780956998552

The Girl from the Sea by Shalini Boland is a so-so novel of suspense.

A young woman wakes up on a beach, apparently having been washed ashore after almost drowning. At the hospital it becomes clear that she has she has retrograde amnesia. She can't even remember her name or even recognize herself in the mirror. The overwhelming questions are: Who is she? and Why was she in the ocean? Then a young man comes forward with evidence that he is her boyfriend. Apparently her name is Mia James, although she doesn't recognize the name. She chooses to believe him and he takes her to her home, where she recognizes nothing. Now she is still trying to fill in the empty blanks and discover who she is.

Mia must learn who she is from what other people tell her. Since she has no memory, she doesn't know who she can really trust and must rely on her instincts to figure out who is being truthful and who is lying. She does know that her supposed boyfriend annoys her. And then there are the dream-like flashbacks she is having.

I did have to suspend my disbelief that Mia would be allowed to have this boyfriend take her home, even though she has no memory of him or their relationship. Hello? Could he have been the one who tried to kill her? Or, even if it was an accident, was he with her? You're really all taking him at his word over what happened the night she disappeared? Shouldn't someone have advised a healthy dose of caution in all things rather than running around believing that everyone she talks to will have her best interests at heart. Uh - no. People rarely are that altruistic. Certainly the police or her doctor could have found some neutral party to simply look out for her. In the real world this would have happened considering who Mia James is. The media would have likely been all over it too.

Basically all of the characters are simplistic caricatures with little development or depth. This simplicity is reflected in the narrative too, which is very predictable and includes some extraordinarily convenient and even unbelievable plot points. You will likely be intrigued enough to keep reading in order to find out what happens next, even if only to see if your predictions are correct. (And for seasoned readers of suspense: you will be correct.) This is "suspense-lite" so don't expect any nail-biting anxiety over what is going to happen next. The plot is simple enough to easily follow even with distractions.  Actually it reads like an easy YA book and I was surprised that it isn't considered YA.

This is an easy, fast read which might make it a perfect airplane book.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.