Thursday, October 19, 2017

Deep Freeze

Deep Freeze by John Sandford
Penguin Random House: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399176067
Virgil Flowers Series #10

Deep Freeze by John Sandford  is the very highly recommended tenth investigation by Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers.

The body of banker Gina Hemmings was found in the river, by the outflow from the sewage plant. The murder happened in her house after an evening meeting of the committee to organize their 25th high school class reunion. We know from the opening the whole backstory of her murder and that she was hit in the head by a champagne bottle. This murder results in Virgil being called back early from his vacation and sent back to Trippton, Minnesota to investigate. Now Virgil has to look into small town gossip along with a host of suspects.

If murder isn't enough on Virgil's agenda, the governor has asked him to help PI Margaret Griffin, who is representing the toy company Mattel, to serve a federal cease and desist order to Jesse McGovern. Apparently Jesse is providing needed jobs to many locals in an underground workshop where Barbie and Ken dolls are turned into x-rated versions. Locals are playing dumb and denying knowing Jesse or anything about the dolls when questioned by Griffin. It is thought that Virgil can find Jesse and help get the papers served. This side investigation seems to get Virgil into more trouble than the murder case.

Much of the enjoyment in Deep Freeze is found in the character of Virgil Flowers and his intuitive deductions, quick wit, and the humorous dialogue and interactions with the locals. It is to Sandford's credit that he can write such a compelling novel with the focus on a character who is solving the case, in spite of the fact that he reveals who the killer is from the first chapter. This novel just flew along and held my attention from start to finish.

Sandford also does an excellent job describing the setting and capturing the life and people in small town Minnesota. Virgil wades through a plethora of gossip and meets with numerous small town characters as he pieces together what happened to Hemmings and tries to find out the location of Jesse McGovern. Additionally, he provides along the way some insights into life that aren't just related to his novel. There are several times he has Virgil make an observation that is so true to life that you want to yell a loud, "Yes! That is so true."

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

A Life Beyond Amazing

A Life Beyond Amazing 
by David Jeremiah
Thomas Nelson, Inc.: 10/3/17
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780718079901

A Life Beyond Amazing: 9 Decisions That Will Transform Your Life Today by David Jeremiah is a very highly recommended exploration of the nine character traits that are called the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians. Dr. Jeremiah has some wonderful insights to share on the fruit of the Spirit. This would be a great choice for a Bible study, personal or group. There is a study guide available too.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

In the introduction Dr. Jeremiah writes: This book is about character. It’s about how we develop the character that Christ wants for us, that God makes us capable of achieving, and that the Holy Spirit is always, always ready to guide us to. I want to help you develop character qualities beyond the norm. I want to show you how to build a life beyond amazing, and, in so doing, make an impact beyond imagination.... The church needs a rekindling of the nine traits that go to the core of character and are called the "fruit of the Spirit."

Following the fruit of the Spirit, the contents of  A Life Beyond Amazing are:  Introduction 1. A Life of Love 2. A Life of Joy 3. A Life of Peace 4. A Life of Endurance 5. A Life of Compassion 6. A Life of Generosity 7. A Life of Integrity 8. A Life of Humility 9. A Life of Self-Discipline. Dr. Jeremiah points out that three of these have to do with our relationship with ourselves, three deal with interactions with other people, and three of them focus on our relationship with God.  To develop these nine qualities will require commitment and effort, but if we take this goal seriously, this decision will also transform our hearts, lives, and world.

This is a well written, outstanding book with plenty of sound Biblical principles backed up by scripture, practical advice, and superb examples taken from recent to historical events. It's obvious that there is some thought and inspiration behind the information shared. I felt inspired by the points made and challenged to continue the task of developing the fruits of the Spirit in my life. Honestly, A Life Beyond Amazing wasn't just "phoned-in" so a book could be published (unlike a few other books I've reviewed this year, that, although they had some good advice, they also felt dated with no current examples and contained repetitious information found in previous books).

I collected some great quotes from A Life Beyond Amazing and want to share a few of them because of the insight they contain.
And this peace is not a quiet tension. Quiet tension is not peace. It’s just compressed anxiety. Too often we think we’re trusting when we’re really only controlling our panic. True peace is not only a calm exterior, but also a quiet heart.
Integrity is telling the truth to yourself. Honesty is telling the truth to others.
Self-discipline is choosing to do what’s right when you feel like doing what’s wrong.
Humility is one of the most difficult virtues to cultivate in our time and place. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

If You Knew My Sister

If You Knew My Sister by Michelle Adams
St. Martin's Press: 10/3/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250126702

If You Knew My Sister by Michelle Adams is a highly recommended debut psychological thriller about a dysfunctional family.

Dr. Irini Harringford is in denial, but she has been scarred for life by her abandonment at the age of three. At that time, her parents gave her to her aunt and uncle to raise, but kept her seven-year-old sister, Elle. Irini has spent her life wondering why her parents kept her sister and never visited her. Why did her parents give her to an aunt and uncle who didn't want her or lover her. And why did her parents and her aunt and uncle try to keep her sister Elle from finding her?

Could she have been given away because she is is not perfect, but walks with a distinct limp from a dysplastic hip and a leg that never developed properly. This caused Irini to experience plenty of name calling and bullying as a child. In fact, the first time Elle found and contacted Irini over the years, it was when she protected her from a bully. Elle viciously attacked him. Still, even though Elle has found her over the years, they are not close. In fact any contact with Elle is mark with odd, sometimes violent, behavior on Elle's part and Irini has tried to stay hidden from her.

Now Elle has found Irini after 6 years with no contact. She called in the middle of the night, telling Irini that their mother has died and that she must come to the funeral. Irini, frightened by what Elle might do and still wanting some answers, goes home to Scotland for the funeral. But once there things don't seem to quite add up and she is still not getting any answers as to why she was given away and it seems that there is another plot afoot that Irini hasn't a clue about and might not figure out until it is too late.

If You Knew My Sister is a nail-biting, well-written, dark, creepy, and twisty thriller with a Gothic vibe to it. Unsettling or disturbing scenes abound in the narrative, enough that you would think Irini would never have left for Scotland, or certainly should have run home much sooner than she does, not that that would provide any comfort. Obviously, Elle has issues and an agenda that no one might guess. Actually, Irini herself might have some hidden issues that she needs to confront.

Additionally, I had a a few minor thoughts about the plot. The reason Irini was given away doesn't seem all that shocking or surprising, and I would have thought she would have instinctively known the reason why after she first met Elle. She does realize that she needs to avoid Elle. Irini's boyfriend, Antonio, is unlikable right from the start. Finally, the events at the end seemed a little forced and rushed to me, rather than flowing naturally from the story. Setting all that aside, If You Knew My Sister is a satisfying thriller and I do highly recommend it for those who enjoy psychological thrillers with a Gothic feeling.

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

The Genius Plague

The Genius Plague by David Walton
Prometheus Books: 10/3/17
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781633883437

The Genius Plague by David Walton is a highly recommended science fiction/plague novel featuring brothers set against each other and a wide-ranging fungus.

Paul Johns, a mycologist, is returning from his trip through the Amazon with a backpack full of fungi samples when terrorists attack the tourist riverboat he is taking back to Manaus, Brazil. When he makes it home to Maryland, he is immediately hospitalized with a life-threatening fungal pneumonia/infection. He recovers but with a gap in his memory.

Neil Johns, the younger brother of Paul, has just managed to fulfill his dream and follow his father's footsteps by getting a job with the NSA. His father, Charles, has Alzheimer’s, and will never know either of his sons' accomplishments. Paul is assigned to a group that is given the almost impossible to crack codes where he manages to figure out the obscure language used in a series of messages from South America. Clearly something out of the ordinary is happening in the Brazilian rain forest and it is spreading

At the same time, Paul is recovering from his infection, but
his intelligence has noticeably increased. Neil takes note of the the change in his brother, along with Paul's sudden desire to protect the rain forest. This phenomenon is not just related to Paul, but there are many others who have suffered from the fungal pneumonia and recovered only to exhibit a remarkable increase in intelligence, along with an uncanny ability to seemingly read each other's mind and act in unison. The infected are spreading and so is what seems to be some kind of mind control.

The brothers are on the opposites sides of what is becoming an international war. Either the infection represents the next stage of evolution or it signifies the end of the human race. Can humanity survive this biological threat?

The Genius Plague is a well written page-turner that will definitely have you staying up too late at night reading just-one-more-chapter. The science is believable, well explained, and Walton makes the case for a fungus to be a plausible threat against the human race. He keeps the action moving at a fast pace in a well-constructed and compelling plot. The brothers are both interesting, well developed characters and their interaction with their father is significant to the plot. There are also a wide variety of interesting supporting characters to keep the plot interesting and moving along.

With the thrilling action, Walton adds in a few questions to ponder. What price would you pay for ecological stability? What would you choose if faced with the dichotomy of free will and individuality versus working together in unison for the good of everything? At what cost is mind control acceptable?

This is an excellent novel. The only questions I had about it were the unlikeliness of Neil's employment by the NSA with no degree and I'm not entirely happy with the whole ending, but that could be a win because I'm still pondering it too.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Prometheus Books.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Relive Box and Other Stories

The Relive Box and Other Stories by T. C. Boyle
HarperCollins: 10/3/17
eBook Review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062673398

The Relive Box and Other Stories by T. C. Boyle is a highly recommended collection of twelve short stories.

Contents include:
The Relive Box: A device that allows people to revisit and relive scenes from their past slowly takes over their current lives.
She's the Bomb: A non-graduating college senior goes to desperate measures to stop the ceremony.
Are We Not Men? In a future where people custom-design children and pets through transgenic reproduction.
The Five-Pound Burrito: A magic realism tale of a man who has a vision to offer his customers a five pound burrito.
The Argentine Ant: A plague of ants invades the house a mathematician rented for his family
Surtsey: A storm is flooding the whole island and everyone is sheltered at the school.
Theft and Other Issues: A man's car is stolen with his girlfriend's dog inside it.
Subtract One Death: Death becomes too close and personal for a novelist.
You Don't Miss Your Water ('Til The Well Runs Dry): The California drought worsens and water restrictions increase.
The Designee: An elderly man falls for a scam artist's pitch.
Warrior Jesus: A man channels his anger into making disturbing comic-book superhero episodes.
The Fugitive: A man with an illness is required by authorities to wear a mask at all times.

Boyle's incredible genius is on full display in this varied collection. The topics of his stories span a vast field of topics, from technology to nature, and can be about ordinary circumstances to futuristic developments. He has the ability to capture people amid their struggles with humor, social conscious, and intelligence. This skill, combined with his strength of descriptions and the narrative voice he gives his characters, shines through in these twelve stories. I enjoyed the majority of these stories a great deal. It's always a pleasure to read a well-written short story.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Blind

The Blind by A.F. Brady
Park Row Books: 9/26/17
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778330875

The Blind by A.F. Brady is a highly recommended debut novel of addictions, codependency, psychological self-examination and redemption.

Samantha "Sam" James, 37, always acts positive and keeps her inner demons at bay while maintaining her position as the best psychologist at Manhattan’s Typhlos Psychiatric Center, where she is admired by her boss and peers. Her professional life stands in sharp contrast to her personal life. After work Sam is drinking heavily and being physically abused by her boyfriend. Sam thinks she's keeping her two lives separate, but when she needs to throw up almost every morning from her alcohol intake the previous night and has to use special makeup to cover up any bruises her boyfriend left, well, she knows her life is spiraling out of control.

When a new patient, Richard McHugh, comes to Typhlos, none of the other staff want to take him on as a patient. Richard is an enigma. His file is virtually empty, with no diagnosis or patient history. He doesn't talk. Richard spent twenty years in prison and is believed to be violent.  No one knows why he is at Typhlos. After a month with his first assigned psychologist, Richard is assigned to Sam because she has a good reputation counseling difficult patients. He comes into Sam's office with his stack of newspapers and doesn't say a word.

As Sam's risk taking increases in her personal life, mistakes begin to happen in her professional life. Richard witnesses one of these which eventually become the impetus for him to open up and share his secrets if Sam reciprocates. This leads to a personal analysis of both of their lives, just between the two.

The Blind is an intense character study of a woman who must put herself back together before her life spirals completely out of control. While described as a thriller, it really doesn't fit that description. There isn't any nail-biting suspense. There is addiction, pain, mental anxiety, abuse, and other difficult topics covered. Sam narrates the novel and tells the story in her voice. This is a wise choice by Brady, who is a Mental Health Counselor/Psychotherapist, since it allows us insight into Sam's thoughts and actions.

I found
The Blind to be extremely well written and engaging. The big reveal/twist likely will be guessed by most readers early on, but in this novel it is the journey to get there that makes the novel worth reading. It does drag a wee bit in the middle and Sam's self-destructive behavior does become painful to witness. The ending is worth the time spent reading the difficult parts as this is a novel where the reading journey needs to be to the ending destination.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of
Park Row Books

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Best Day Ever

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda
Graydon House: 9/19/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781525811401

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Paul Strom and his wife, Mia, leave their two sons with a sitter and head to their lake house for a relaxing romantic get-away weekend for two. Paul is a successful advertising executive. He and Mia live an enviable life in a large house located in a wealthy suburb. Paul describes this day, the day they are driving to their vacation, as the best day ever. As they drive, he tells us that they are a perfect family; Mia is a perfect wife for him and he is a perfect husband and father. Mia hasn't been feeling well lately and Paul wants this weekend to be a time of relaxation and a perfect vacation just for them.

As the two travel, Paul narrates the novel, telling us about his life, his expectations, and his marriage. Paul has such high hopes for the weekend, and even though there is tension between the two, he is sure this weekend will fix everything, but Mia's mood seems to be worsening. She is upset by a phone call he had to take before they left, and she doesn't want to listen to his carefully selected playlist.  As Paul talks about his life and their marriage, soon it becomes clear that everything isn't quite as perfect as Paul describes it. And, along the way, Mia seems to becoming more and more obstinate and petulant. Perhaps the Strom's life isn't quite as perfect as Paul would have us believe.

This is a very well-written page-turner that will have you compulsively reading "just one more chapter" right up to the end. The chapters show the time of day that the action takes place as the book is set over a twenty-four hour period of time. Having Paul narrate the novel is a brilliant choice as his perfect veneer slowly starts to expose cracks, dents, and holes as the narrative progresses and he reveals himself as an unreliable narrator.  And, through Paul's narrative, readers are going to surmise more about Paul's plans than he realizes. The tension begins to mount and becomes palatable as Paul's plans for the Best Day Ever start to unravel.

This portrait of a modern-day psychopath and narcissist is a brilliant thriller/suspense novel. Best Day Ever held my rapt attention from beginning to end. Only one small part toward the end held my rating back a bit.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Graydon House.

The Visitors

The Visitors by Catherine Burns
Gallery/Scout Press: 9/26/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501164019

The Visitors by Catherine Burns is a recommended debut novel featuring a psychological character study.

Marion Zetland is in her mid-fifties and lives with her domineering older brother, John, in a decaying Georgian townhouse they inherited along with sizeable trust funds. While John is a cantankerous abusive bully, Marion remains living with him, probably because she has the emotional and mental acumen of a young girl. Marion, who is the narrator of the novel, has been bullied her whole life so life with John is normal. She has her stuffed animal friends to comfort her, along with her imaginary friend.

What she'd really like to ignore, and does a questionably admirable job doing just that, is the visitors in the cellar. She knows John has women down there. He says he's teaching them English and mathematics. She sometimes hears cries, screams and calls for help, which she chooses to not think about.

The narrative alternates between Marion's experiences in the present and flashbacks to her past. she does a lot of ruminating/thinking about her life and the mistreatment she has experienced at the hands of others. John is, naturally, a part of her inner dialogue and he was just as disagreeable as a child as he is as an adult. Marion relates key details about her life that will come into play much later in the novel. Interspersed between Marion's inner dialogue are email exchanges with someone that will be understood at the end of the novel.

While I did appreciate some elements of this character driven novel and the unreliable narrator we find in Marion, I also need to admit that this one was slow going for me and was not a particularly compelling thriller. It's more a psychological character study than a thriller. I forced myself to get through Marion's endless stories. In the end, her stories do have a point to them, but reaching the end is a bit of a slog-through them. I also need to note that John is not hospitalized until the last third of the novel. Based on the synopsis you expect this to happen much sooner than it does and, well, most readers aren't going to be so horrified at Marion's discovery of his secret because of all the foreshadowing.

The quality of the writing is good, but the slow pacing removes much of the suspense. I wasn't surprised at any twists or revelations unveiled at the end. Adding to this lack of suspense is the lack of sympathy that I could muster for any of the characters, including Marion. This was just an okay novel for me.

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Good Me Bad Me

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land
Flatiron Books: 9/5/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250087645

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land is a very highly recommended psychological thriller. This is an impressive, compelling debut novel.

"Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family and a spot at an exclusive private school." Psychologist Mike Newmont, his wife, Saskia, and their daughter, Phoebe take Milly (whose real name is Annie) into their home, while her mother, Ruth, a nurse who murdered nine young children, is locked up and headed toward a trial.

Mike's job is to provide Milly with therapy and support as she comes to terms with her childhood and prepares for testifying at her mother's trial, but after living with her mother and being abused for fifteen years, Milly knows how to keep some things secret. She knows what her mother would say, what she is capable of, and she still hears her mother's voice in her head. Milly certainly sees and knows more than she tells Mike, as well as other people.

As Milly is trying hard to fit in at her new home, she is also struggling to fit in at her new school too, even as Phoebe, also fifteen, is determined to bully her and make her life hell. The problem is that Phoebe doesn't know Milly's true identity - and that Milly knows all about bullies and tormentors. Can Milly be good, or is she her mother's daughter?  

Good Me Bad Me really is an unputdownable novel. Land manages to capture a feeling of impending dread that had me hooked from the beginning. The tension didn't let up straight through to the end. The narrative is wonderfully paced to allow that feeling of nervous anticipation of some unnamed horrific event that will surely be forthcoming. Milly's account of events also has her  gradually disclosing more information about her past. As the tormenting increases, the potential of what living with Ruth has taught Milly, also begins to surface.

It is also a character analysis of someone who has experienced years of  horrific childhood trauma. The abuse is by the hands of someone who is supposed to love her, establishing the question is it nature or nurture. Can Milly overcome the experiences of her childhood or is she doomed to repeat what her mother has taught her? 

Adding to the total package is the excellent writing. Land presents us with a well-written, entertaining, engrossing psychological thriller that held my rapt attention from beginning to end.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books.

George and Lizzie

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl
Touchstone: 9/5/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501162893

I really can't recommend George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.
George and Lizzie are a mismatched couple in an unlikely relationship. George is a dentist who grew up in a warm and loving family. "Lizzie grew up as the only child of two famous psychologists, who viewed her more as an in-house experiment than a child to love." In their marriage George is happy; Lizzie isn't.
All I can say is: Run George, run!
George is a genuinely nice man. Lizzie is genuinely not a nice woman, or even remotely sympathetic.

Pearl lost me right at the beginning with Lizzie planning The Great Game, where the "game" is to have sex with all 23 starters of her high school football team, one per week. There is no explanation as to why, other than she and a friend thought it would be a "fun" game. The very next day the friend retracts her support and tells Lizzie not to do it, that it isn't a good idea, but Lizzie does it anyway. The secret shame of her actions follows her throughout the book. Setting the "game" aside, George and Lizzie just isn't a very good story or a well-written novel. The plot jumps all over the place, with characters introduced and then abandoned, and interruptions in the story about the football players. It was hard to finish this one, which is never a good sign. I should have abandoned it early on. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Touchstone.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Last Ballad

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
HarperCollins: 10/3/17

advance reading copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062313119

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash is a remarkable, very highly recommended novel inspired by real historical events, the strike at the Loray Mills, and based on a real person.

Set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929, The Last Ballad Tells the story of twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins. Ella May earns nine dollars for a seventy-two hour week working as a spinner on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City. On this paltry sum she is expected to feed and clothe her four living children. Ella May's husband has run off and she's pregnant again.

When Ella May comes across a leaflet for a union that advocates a minimum wage and a forty-hour workweek, she holds on to it and dares to hope for a better life.  She attends a union rally in nearby Gastonia, hoping for more information about joining the union. At the rally Ella May is asked to speak about mill conditions, and, after saying a few words, she also sings a song she wrote, A Mother's Lament, that instantly gives a voice to the struggle and propels her into the forefront of the labor movement. 

Cash tells the story through Ella May's voice, as well as through a series of other people involved in the events of 1929. Her story is also told in a letter written by her daughter Lilly in 2005. Lilly is now an elderly woman who wants her nephew to know about their family history, especially his grandmother. Although Lilly's letter tells us about what will happen early on in the novel, the journey getting to the events is heartbreaking and inspiring.

The people involved come to life on the pages. You will feel like you have met these characters, shared their thoughts and concerns, listened to their fears, and, just as in life, some of them have much deeper, abiding concerns than others. This story is a moving tribute to everyone who took up the cause and fought for worker's rights, but especially for those who sacrificed so much for the cause.

The Last Ballad is a well-written, eloquent, touching novel that captures the courage and fortitude it takes for someone to face injustice and oppression head-on to try to make a change for the sake of their family. Yes, the fight was for worker's rights, but Ella May was fighting for a cause even closer to her heart, her children and their future. She join the fight for their sake, so she could feed and clothe her family. The stark contrast between the mill owners and those working for them is part of the complete picture created in this novel. I say novel, but it is based on fact, which makes it even more poignant as a novel. Cash's family has a history in the area and connections to mill villages.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins for TLC Book Tours.  

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Scribner: 10/3/17
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476716732

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is a highly recommended historical fiction novel set in New York City during the Depression and World War II.

In 1934 Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father, Eddie, to visit Dexter Styles at his Manhattan Beach home. Styles is with the mob and Eddie is looking for a job with him so he can leave his job as a bagman for a crooked union official. Styles insists that people who come to visit him bring their families, but Anna is the only family member who can go with Eddie. His wife is at home caring for their severely disable daughter, Lydia. Part of the reason Eddie wants a job with Styles is for the better pay, which will enable him to buy a specially made chair for Lydia.

Years later the world is at war. Anna is nineteen and supporting her mother and sister by working at the Brooklyn Navel Yard. Her father, Eddie disappeared five years ago, leaving his family behind with no word. After seeing divers in the yard, Anna is intrigued and obsessively sets her sights on becoming the first female diver. It is at this time that she meets Dexter Styles as an adult, at one of his nightclubs. When Anna meets him again, she hopes he can tell her what happened to her father.

The quality of the writing is brilliant. Manhattan Beach manages to capture the time and place to such an extent that you are transported there. What starts out as a seemingly simple, well-written novel evolves into a much more rich and intricate story following three narratives. Adding to the depth of the prose is the ocean as an ever prevalent motif in Manhattan Beach. It transfixes Anna, transports Eddie. It enthralls, mesmerizes, destroys, saves, engages, and employees. It offers life and death.

The characters are wonderfully realized and complex. The strengths and flaws of her diverse characters are firmly established. Egan has some surprising phrasing and apt, remarkable descriptions that utterly capture the moment and the emotions and sensations a character is feeling. Her characters are allowed to be themselves, full of conflicting allegiances and emotions,  without resorting to clich├ęs.

In the final analysis, however, I do wish that Egan has chosen to keep the story focused on Anna. While I can logically see the wisdom behind the choice to branch out and spend so much time on all three narratives, Anna was the character I was drawn to and cared anxiously about. She had my fealty and support, while the actions of Styles and Eddie were more of a passing interest.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Man from the Train

The Man from the Train by Bill James, Rachel McCarthy James
Scribner: 9/19/17
eBook review copy; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476796253

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James is a very highly recommended presentation of and solution to  a series of century-old murders.

"Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth." Sometimes the hoses were then burned. The murderer chose houses near train tracks. Bill James takes his skills as a statistician, historian, and baseball writer to research and present the cold cases of the series of horrific murders. His daughter, Rachel McCarthy James helped with researching and finding the earlier cases. He ended up discovering even more cases that fit the pattern of those that were originally thought to be the work of one man. As James and his daughter continued in their research of old papers, court transcripts, and other public records, they made a surprising discovery: they learned the identity of the killer, one of the deadliest serial killers in America.

The research began with perhaps the best known case, the mass killing of the Moore family in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912. As research continued, similar murders were found in the Midwest and South. Soon likely cases that could be tied to being perpetrated by The Man from the Train, were found crisscrossing the country, in Virginia, Oregon, Colorado, and Kansas, while even earlier murders were in Nova Scotia to Arkansas to Florida. Several of the murders were right in my area of the country.

The Man from the Train is addictively readable blend of true crime and historical documentation. James does an admirable job of presenting all the facts (and suppositions) about each case and the investigation. He recounts the cases and the facts surrounding it in a straightforward, conversational style and ties in a historical portrait of American in the early 1900's while demonstrating how one man could have gotten away with the murders. At that time, crime was a local problem and murder was not a common occurrence, let alone the mass murder of whole families. Public opinion, gossip, and rumors were often taken as facts, and sometimes the local papers helped in the spreading of falsehoods. The judicial system was also often dysfunctional at the local level. This is a fascinating recounting of the cases. Anyone who appreciates historical true crime books won't want to miss this one.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Blackbird Season

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
Atria Books: 9/26/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501118456

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti is a highly recommended mystery/drama.

When a thousand starlings fall out of the sky, dead, on the town of Mount Oanoke PA during a high school baseball game coached by Nate Winters, it seems to be the beginning of things that are going to go wrong for the popular math teacher. A reporter in town investigating the mysterious die off of birds has seen Nate embracing Lucia, a high school student, While Nate has been, according to him, helping the young woman, his wife, Alicia, has been at home struggling to take care of their 5-year-old autistic son, Gabe.

Alecia's friend and Nate’s coworker, Bridget Harris,  is a creative writing teacher at the high school and knows both Nate and the girl. She has witnessed some suspect actions, but she is also trying to keep an open mind. When the girl, Lucia, goes missing, Bridget tries to find her and enlists the police. But the police are seeing only one suspect in her disappearance, Nate, and the fragile bonds between husband and wife and friends is near a breaking point as the town seems to rally against him.

In this character-driven drama, the story is told from the point of views of Nate, Alicia, Lucia, and Bridget. This helps keep the reader guessing and ratchets up the suspense as more clues are discovered and more information comes out. Moretti is an excellent writer and handles the transition between characters beautifully. Of the characters, though, Bridget is the only one I even remotely cared about. Everyone else resembled a caricature rather than a real person.

The ending was good for me, although I did struggle a bit with getting there. I must admit I am becoming a wee bit tired of this plot (male teacher/female student dead) and adding annoying characters to the well-worn path didn't help me traverse it. What did help propel me through the novel was the quality of the writing and looking at the plot from the different character's points of view.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

White Horses

White Horses by Alice Hoffman
Open Road Media: 9/23/14
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780425170502

White Horses by Alice Hoffman is a so-so novel of a highly dysfunctional family. This is one of Hoffman's early novels, first published in 1982, that displays her greatest gift: the ability to write incredibly descriptive lyrical prose while capturing an other-worldly magical essence.

Teresa Connor comes from a family full of disappointments. Her parents, Dina and King now despise each other. Dina used to tell Teresa about the mythical Arias, dark-eyed, fearless cowboys on white horses. This was the kind of man Teresa should look for. But instead, Teresa is drawn to her reckless brother, Silver, a petty criminal and drug dealer who would sweep her away. Once Dina realized that sometimes kindness is a better quality to look for in a man, Teresa is already swept down a dangerous path.

Enough has been said about the incest in this novel so I needn't elaborate on it, however that doesn't mean, no matter how it turns out, that I need to accept the premise as a good choice for a plot element. It's not. There were also several scenes of lightly skipped over unrealistic details that resulted in some eye rolls from me. The only thing that could make me finish the novel is the quality of Hoffman's writing and her descriptions, along with a general respect for her talent. So read this one if you appreciate good writing and can handle some truly bad scenes.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Open Road Media

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Janet Peery
St. Martin's Press: 9/19/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250125088

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Janet Peery is a highly recommended look at the dysfunctional, aging Campbell family.

In Amicus, Kansas, the Campbell family has long been through the actions of their patriarch, Abel. Long retired, Abel was a town lawyer and later a judge. He ruled his family, including Hattie, his wife, via his scathing comments, exacting expectations, and demanded to be the center of attention. Hattie wonders of their family, once well-regarded by the community, is now considered to be to total decline as all of her and Abel's children were, and some are still, plagued by alcoholism, drug addictions, divorces, and foreclosures.

Of the five surviving children, it is the youngest, Billy, who receives the brunt of his father's loathing, yet the bulk of his mother's love and ever-present enabling. The rest of the siblings know Billy's issues, even as they deal with their own. Certainly it is Billy's health and addictions that have monopolized the family discourse for years.

This is a family drama where the family members are all playing out long-held roles despite the fact that the parents are in their late 80's, heading to 90s, with children in their early 50's to mid-sixties. The roles they have played and continue to play in their family's dynamics remain predictable and consistent, as the members seem to be unchanged, or unable to change and part ways with the familial role they have consistently acted out. And Hattie, bless her heart, plays favorites with such devotion that it is amazing that that all of the rest of the adult children don't simply let go of their need for approval. Yet they all cling to their bond of birth and replay old feuds and their need for their parent's approval.

There is no doubt that The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs is a beautifully written novel, both lyrical and descriptive. Peery's adept descriptions and details about the setting and her character's fears and foibles will resonate with many people who have experienced complex family dramas of their own. The characters are finely drawn and feel like real individuals. The Campbell's come to life as a real family comprised of individuals who are hurting, each in their own way. The story itself is slow moving as it recounts these latter years in the life of the senior Campbells and their children visiting them. Hattie is the heart of the story, along with her favorite Billy, while everyone else vies for her love.

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lightning Men

Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
Atria/37 INK: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501138799
Darktown Series #2

Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen is a highly recommended sequel to Darktown. This historical fiction crime novel is set during the racial tensions of the 1950's South. In an overcrowded and rapidly changing Atlanta, the segregated city is patrolled by a segregated police force. It is two years since Officer Denny Rakestraw and "Negro Officers" Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith were first introduced inLightning Men. The three officers are trying to keep the peace amidst volatile situations.

Officer Denny (Rake) Rakestraw finds himself embroiled in the midst of racial tension as black families begin to move into a formerly white neighborhood, Hanford Park. This attracts the attention of the Klan and Nazi brown shirts, putting Rake in the position of following the law or showing loyalty to his family, who are Klan members. Boggs and Smith are trying to work within the system to stop the sale of moonshine and drugs in Darktown, their area of the city, but their investigation implicates powerful men, including members of the police force. They too, are faced with the dilemma of trying to enforce the law while protecting their families while street fights and gun violence increase.
In Lightning Men Mullen blends  a crime novel with historical fiction. There are indications that Darktown and Lightning Men are the first books in a continuing series. I do regret not reading Darktown before Lightning Men, although you can certainly read Lightning Men and follow the plot. I think that reading the first book in the series, though, would provide me with even better developed characters and a more extensive background into their lives. If you have a copy of Lightning Men, though, don't let this comment stop you from reading it. The characters are still very well developed and are complicated, flawed individuals.

Superb writing helps keep the intricate and complex plot moving along swiftly, while including plenty of period details, attitudes, and actions that show a realistic historical setting. Although this is a historically accurate novel, it isn't, however, always an easy book to read. Mullens accurately depicts segregation and racism, which can feel brutal and raw as you are reading.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria.

Keep Her Safe

Keep Her Safe by Sophie Hannah
HarperCollins: 9/19/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062388322

Keep Her Safe by Sophie Hannah is a recommended thriller. 

Cara Burrows runs away from her home and family in England for an expensive resort and spa in Arizona. When the clerk mistakenly gives her a key to a room that is already occupied by a man and a teenage girl, Clara is upgraded to a bungalow. The next day Cara overhears another guest claiming to have seen the mysterious Melody, a girl whose parents were convicted of her murder seven years earlier. Then detectives come to halfheartedly investigate the sighting. Cara decides to get online with the spa-provided tablet and research the story of Melody Chapa.

While reading about the case of infamous American murder victim, Cara suspects that the teenage girl she saw and heard the first night, in the room she mistakenly was given the key to, was Melody. She discusses her suspicions with Tarin Fry and her daughter, Zellie, along with the staff. She asks to see the detectives, but disappears before she can tell them what she saw and heard.

Keep Her Safe is entertaining when the backstory of the Melody Chapa case is discussed. The theories and investigation of the case combined with the occasional excerpts from the writing by some unnamed girl hook you into the mystery. However, you also have to suspend a whole lot of disbelief to keep reading and believing in the plot. It helps that Hannah is a good writer so there aren't technical flaws. There are other flaws.

The reason given for why Cara ran away from her family to a place she couldn't afford was unbelievable. Really. You're going to think there must have been more to it, but there isn't. And, honestly, it made me respect her less as a character. The whole paying a stranger to hold her cell phone for her was ridiculous/stupid. The plot is kind of silly. Bonnie Juno is a joke. Allowing only local cops, resort management, Juno, and guests to meet and talk about the sightings of Melody and the disappearance of Cara and another person was implausible.  And, yet again, the character of Tarin Fry is a florist from Lawrence, Kansas. Really? (Novelists, please stop pointing at a map and deciding that Lawrence, KS looks like a good place to have an unlikable character live. I'm starting to get a complex about this. Please consider some other places in fly-over territory.)

I'm recommending Keep Her Safe because I read it to the end and was entertainer by it, even when there was a wee-bit of eye rolling over some of the details.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Bad Kansas

Bad Kansas by Becky Mandelbaum
University of Georgia Press: 9/15/17
eBook review copy; 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9780820351285

Bad Kansas: Stories by Becky Mandelbaum is a very highly recommended collection of eleven short stories. This collection is the well-deserved winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for 2017.  

All of the stories use Kansas as a metaphor for dislocation and disconnection, as well as a location.  All of her characters are appealing and quirky as they deal with various relationships. Mandelbaum delves deep into their psyches and concerns with others as well as themselves.

There is no question that this is an exquisite collection of stories where every one of them is exceptionally well written.  At time poignant and other times humorous this is a masterful collection and likely portends great things to come in the future for Mandelbaum. The stories include: Kansas Boys; The Golden State; A Million and One Marthas; Go On, Eat Your Heart Out; The House on Alabama Street; Night of Indulgences; Stupid Girls; Thousand-Dollar Decoy; First Love; Queen of England; and Bald Bear.

Most of the stories are set in Lawrence, Kansas or nearby (hardly there) Vineland. This is worth noting because the city is very much used as a place and a recognizable character in the stories. Since it is also currently my home, I recognize many of the places, streets etc., if only by name/reputation. If anyone attended the University of Kansas, they will also likely have a more memory-laden recall of various areas where students tend to congregate. Yet again, I don't think Kansas is all that bad, and most certainly Lawrence is hardly representative of the state, but it seems the state is doomed to be an example of a bad place to live.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the University of Georgia Press.

Unshakeable Trust

Unshakeable Trust by Joyce Meyer
FaithWords: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455560066

Unshakeable Trust: Find the Joy of Trusting God at All Times, in All Things by Joyce Meyer is a highly recommended guide to encourage you to trust God with everything.

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8 

Joyce Meyer writes in the opening: From the very beginning of this book, I want to emphasize that trust is not an obligation that we owe God; it is a privilege that He makes available to us. We are invited to trust God, and by doing so, we open the door to a life of peace, joy, and fruitfulness. When we mix a healthy portion of trusting God into everything that we do, it enables us to live without worry, anxiety, fear, reasoning, or debilitating stress.

 It is difficult to trust, especially if your trust has ever been broken, and without a doubt it has because we have all had our trust broken in big and small matters. A broken trust reinforces our tendency to be independent and self-reliant. That is the root of what makes it a struggle to let go of our control and trust God. The thing we need to remember is that learning to trust God is never going to result in disappointment - people, yes, but never God. And, beyond a very basic general trust we need to strive to trust God in every area of our lives: spiritual, relational, emotional, and financial.

Meyers teaches in each chapter, with numerous examples from her own life and the Bible, that we can set the pain and circumstances of our past behind, delve into the Word of God, and start trusting the Lord with all our hearts. This will result in a life that can withstand difficult trials while filled with grace and joy. Certainly I can give examples from my own life where I placed my situation in God's hands and trusted that He would make all things work together for my good. I have experienced God taking what appeared to be an impossible situation and making it all work out for my good in the end. However, keep in mind that like Joseph, you may still have to go through trials and it may take time.  You may also need to ask the Lord to help you trust Him more.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of FaithWords.

The Names of Dead Girls

The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad  
HarperCollins: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062672803

The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad is a highly recommended police procedural/thriller. Detectives Frank Rath and Sonja Test work together again to track a depraved killer through rural Vermont and into Canada. This is a sequel to The Silent Girls, but can be read as a stand alone novel.

Rachel Rath is now a college student and she us being watched. Frank Rath and Rachel are sure the man who is watching her is the same man who killed her parents when she was a baby. Ned Preacher is out on parole now and he has called Frank, threatening Rachel. Frank has tried to protect his niece/adopted daughter from the horrifying details of her parents death, but now Rachel wants to know - and she may need to since Preacher is planning to harm her.

When Dana Clark, a woman who was the only survivor of an attack by the Connecticut River Valley Killer, goes missing, and another girl is found murdered, Frank Rath leaves retirement and works again with Sonja Test to investigate the murders and try to figure out if it is the Preacher or someone else. They are looking at old cases along with the new ones to try and piece together the information they need to find the killer. This includes withing with Canadian police detective Inspector Gerard Champine. Apparently there have been similar murder cases in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

The writing is excellent and there are several twists to the plot.  Rickstad does an excellent job developing his characters while ratcheting up the suspense as the murder investigation is underway. The ever present, oppressive fog is both a character and a setting in The Names of Dead Girls. The heavy fog infiltrates the whole book and creates a foreboding atmosphere that, in turn, increases the tension you feel when reading. The Preacher and the heavy fog are both very creepy.

This is a nail biter, full of suspense, and should hold your attention from start to finish.  It did feel like the actual procedural part, the detective work, was slightly lacking and it would have been nice to see more of the steps and the discovery as it all pertained to the investigation. While the main investigation is solved, there are still a few unanswered questions that may point to another book in the series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Good Daughter

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter
HarperCollins: 8/8/17
hardcover; 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062430243

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter is an outstanding, intense, exemplary, very highly recommended thriller. It will grab your attention from the first page, become an obsession, and consume every free second while wringing every emotion out of you. Seriously - this novel is excellent.

The prologue opens twenty-eight years ago. After their Pikeville, GA, home had been burned down by someone who didn't like their father, attorney Rusty Quinn, the family moved into an old farm house. Sisters Charlotte (Charlie) and Samantha (Sam) Quinn were in the kitchen with their mother, Gamma, when Zach Culpepper and an accomplice broke into their home, looking for their father. Rusty wasn't there so the men terrorized his family, murdering Gamma, and then traumatize and harm the two sisters, leaving both physically and psychologically damaged.

Charlie is the good daughter. She is a lawyer, like her father, and still living in Pikeville. She is currently separated from her husband, ADA Ben Bernard, when she makes a poor life choice. This results in her inadvertently being on the scene and a witness to a horrible crime and tragedy that takes place in the local middle school.  The crime horrifies the whole town and causes Charlie to flashback to the trauma from her childhood. Naturally, Rusty, who believes everyone deserves an advocate, will take on the defense.

The Good Daughter is a wonderfully complex multilayered novel. There is heart-wrenching violence, conflicted emotions and struggles alongside humorous and heart-breaking scenes. The writing is, as expected from Slaughter, excellent - sophisticated, detailed, and intricate. The plot is perfectly presented, with the present day contrasted with past events as more information slowly comes to light. The setting, the character development, the twists... are all perfectly executed. It held my rapt attention from beginning, tossed me around through oh-so-many new developments, had me a messy-crying mess at one point, and finally left me speechless and breathless at the end.

How many ways can I extol Slaughter for The Good Daughter? This is a must-read for all fans of thrillers/crime novels. Really, read it. It is an extremely rare you-will-miss-your-flight-if-you-are-reading-it-while-in-an-airport novel. Read it first, then take the flight. You will thank me for very highly recommending it and then I predict you will look at Slaughter's other novels.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book courtesy of HarperCollins for TLC Book Tours. 

Tour schedule

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Unquiet Grave

The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb
Atria Books: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476772875

The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb is a highly recommended historical fiction novel set in nineteenth-century West Virginia. The novel is based on the true story of the Greenbrier Ghost.

In 1930 after a failed suicide attempt, attorney James P. D. Gardner is in a segregated insane asylum located in Lakin, West Virginia. He begins a conversation with Dr. James Boozer, a young doctor who wants to try the new cure for insanity which involves talking to his patients. Dr. Boozer encourages his elderly patient to talk about his experiences as the first black attorney when he started practicing. Gardner discusses his most memorable case, a case based on the testimony of a ghost, the infamous Greenbrier Ghost.

In 1897 Erasmus Trout Shue, a white man who was a blacksmith, was on trial in Greenbrier, West Virginia, for killing his bride, Zona Heaster.  After they were married and Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster hadn't heard anything from her daughter, she finds out Zona has died.  Mary Jane is sure her new husband had a hand in Zona's death and prays for a sign, which she receives. Then she tells the county prosecutor that Zona’s ghost has appeared to her several times, saying that she had been murdered. An exhumation and autopsy, ordered by the prosecutor, confirms her claim. At that time, Gardner was apprenticed to barrister William Rucker and acted as second chair in the defense of Shue at his murder trial.

The premise of The Unquiet Grave is intriguing and clearly there was a lot of research that went into incorporating the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost in the story. The quality of the writing is excellent and the characters are well developed. What made the narrative suffer was the interview sections between the doctor and Gardiner in the 1930s, which, while they clearly perform a purpose in the novel, they also slow it down and become, well, a bit boring, especially in comparison to Mrs. Heaster's story. I found myself pushing my way through those chapters to get to the other chapters, which I found more interesting. It should also be noted that the humor McCrumb has in her other books is absent here.

The novel does have some interesting historical insights into Gardner's struggles as a black lawyer in the south and his experience in a segregated asylum in the 1930's. Also Mrs. Heaster's fight for justice for Zona is truly a fight against a justice system controlled by men. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Penguin Random House: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735224292

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is an incredible, very highly recommended novel about families, rule following, motherhood, and privilege. This novel is not to be missed.

It is 1997 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, one of the original planned communities with rules for everything. Elena Richardson, the third generation to live in Shaker Heights, firmly believes in the perfection of her family, community and following rules, both communal and societal, and is proud she and her husband Bill chose to live and raise their family there. The novel opens with Elena in her bathrobe on the front lawn watching their home burn. Izzy Richardson, Elena's youngest, has set "little fires everywhere" to burn down the family home. The night before this Elena watched her renters, Mia and daughter Pearl, return the rental key in the Richardson's mailbox.

After the opening, Little Fires Everywhere jumps back in time, to when Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl are moving into the duplex Elena inherited from her parents. Elena prides herself on picking renters she believes deserve her largess in the form of reduced rent and a chance for the chosen renters to live in Shaker Heights. Mia, a single mother, is an artist with a fifteen year old daughter, Pearl. The pair has lived an itinerant lifestyle for years, but now Mia has promised Pearl they will stay in Shaker Heights more than a few months.

Soon Pearl becomes friends with the Richardson children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy.  When Izzy meets Mia, she finally finds a compassionate adult who appreciates and supports her individuality, which stands in stark contrast to the constant correction, control, and belittling her mother heaps upon her. Elena, suspicious of Mia's rule-breaking lifestyle, sets her sights on Mia,  and attempts to assert some control over her by basically forcing her into becoming the Richardson's housekeeper in exchange for rent. She is also determined to investigate Mia's background.

When friends of Elena are planning to adopt an abandoned Chinese American baby the birth mother wants the baby back and a custody battle ensues. Once Elena realizes that she and Mia are on opposite sides of the controversy, she doubles her efforts to investigate Mia. But, as hard as Elena tries to control everything, life is unpredictable and can't always be controlled by following set rules. Elena's obsession and incomplete information resulted in unforeseen and unexpected consequences.

Little Fires Everywhere is an exceptional, impressive novel and sure to capture some awards/acclaim this year. I was riveted to every page and found it impossible to put down once I started it.  Little Fires Everywhere explores families, motherhood, class, lies, secrets, privacy, sacrifices, and how always following the rules isn't always the best choice. The quality of the writing is outstanding, sensitive, and complex. Ng captures a distinct sense of location and time in the narrative. Her characters are all unique and extraordinarily well developed as individuals. The different perspectives of her characters emerge and work together to create a multifaceted story.

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Salt Line

The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones
Penguin Publishing Group: 9/5/17
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735214316

The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones is a very highly recommended dystopian with killer ticks, salted and walled area perimeters, drug farming, and political intrigue.

The novel follows a group of wealthy people who have paid enormous fees to Outer Limits Excursions for the opportunity to go beyond the salt line and experience nature. Andy is their tour guide, the man who will also show them how to survive in the wilderness behind the salt line during their three week boot camp. Included in the tour group are: Jesse, a pop star and his girlfriend Edie, a bartender; Wes, the tech-wizard who developed Pocketz, a web-bank for credit storage and use; Marta, a woman in her fifties sent on this adventure by her crime-boss husband; along with several other minor characters.

Lucky citizens in the U.S. are living within the walled salt line zones. The salt lines are borders around zones where controlled chemical burnings had taken place, scorching the earth, or salting as it has been called historically. Then the Wall was erected for further protection and the TerraVibra added, emanating a pulse fifty kilometers eastward, out from the wall. The chemical and physical barriers are needed to protect people from the deadly miner ticks.

The male tick isn't the real problem. It is the female miner tick that can potentially kill you. The female numbs your skin, burrows in, and will lay eggs that enter your bloodstream. These eggs will mature and erupt out of your skin. But the even worse problem is Shreve’s disease, which about half of the female miner ticks carry. That disease is deadly and fast. In order to travel behind the salt line you need to have and carry a stamp with you at all times. Once you feel the unmistakable tell-tale itch of the female miner tick on you, you have to prepare for the worst pain in your life and immediately use the stamp.

"The Stamp thrusts a barbed hook through your skin, skewering the female miner tick, and then retracts it, capturing the tick in a chemical solution. Then a burner brands the wound, cauterizing it and killing any of the eggs in the perimeter, as well as disinfecting the blood-borne contagions the bitch might have left behind. The Stamp has a ninety-nine-point-eight percent success rate if used within sixty seconds of initial burrowing."

The Salt Line begins with the group in boot camp with Andy and gives us the backstory and history for several of the characters. This continues as the group, rather than going on an adventure, become hostages of Ruby City, a community of outer-zone survivors and drug farmers who have their own political agenda to advance.

The quality of the writing is incredible. This is sophisticated protean world building at its best - and exactly what people want when they ask for better world building and a more sophisticated plot. The main characters are all extremely well-developed and complicated. Their thoughts and interactions are very realistic. I will concede that reviews which say the novel you have at the beginning isn't the novel you have at the end are partially right, but in this case I appreciated the shake-up and felt it created a stronger, more realistic plot. Sure, killer ticks are a draw, but add in the other elements and this becomes a multifaceted novel with depth and intrigue rather than a one-dimensional thriller. (Not that I wouldn't have kept reading if The Salt Line was a thriller only about the killer ticks, which had me feeling itchy during the entire novel.)

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