Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Animators

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Random House: 1/31/2017
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989281

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is very highly recommended. This is a powerful novel that explores the creative process and coming to terms with your past. It's about friendship and secrets. It's about ambition and self-doubt. It's about fame and dark secrets. It's about gifts and inner demons. Expect language and self-destructive behavior. It is heartbreaking, funny,  scathingly brilliant and one of the best novels I've read this year. This is a debut novel and Whitaker just made a fan.

Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses met in a college art class and became fast friends as well as artistic partners. They both came from a white trash background, especially to their elitist college classmates. Sharon's family is in rural Kentucky while Mel's is from Florida, where her mom is in prison. The two, who seem to be opposites - Mel is gay and outgoing while Sharon is straight and reticent - share a love of comics and drawing. They become animators. Even though they may be motivated by different desires, together they struggle and drink and smoke and work hard. After a decade collaborating, their first full length movie, Nashville Combat, is released and they are the recipients of a prestigious grant.

Nashville Combat
is autobiographical and based on Mel's childhood. The fame and notoriety that follows their success leads to self-destructive behavior on Mel's part and self-doubt for Sharon. Their collaboration and friendship seems to be on the verge of imploding when a tragedy happens that pulls the two back to an understanding of what they mean to each other. After secrets Sharon has been keeping are revealed, they understand how important it is for them to continue working together. But this is just the start to their story...

There is so much more to The Animators than this brief description. That is only the beginning. I would say it is a coming-of-age novel, but it's more a coming-to-terms-with-a-crappy-childhood novel. But it is also about the secrets we keep, secrets from our past, family secrets, and how long some of us carry the burden of those secrets. It questions which relationships can survive revelations? How much do you have to sacrifice for your art?

The writing is exceptional, extraordinary, amazing! All the characters are well developed, even those briefly introduced. Sharon and Mel will become real to you. You will know these women and their inner turmoil. Your fingers will feel sore and you'll swear they are ink stained. You'll have an urge to smoke. You'll laugh at the jokes. And your heart will break. The settings are just as finely drawn and skillfully described. Whether in Brooklyn or Florida or Kentucky, you will know where you are. Whitaker captures the ambience; you feel the atmosphere, smell the odors and hear the defining sounds.

The Animators is an exceptional novel and certainly one of the top books of the year, which is why
this review, originally published on 11/26/16, is being reposted.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

And I see something I have never seen before in Mel: self-removal. Inside, she has fled. The ability of anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of something violent to grasp the details that remind them of their humiliation - smells, colors, sounds - and blur these details so that they become foreign, someone else’s property. It is a cultivated skill, requiring time, experience, unspeakable mental real estate. It is, for the desperate, the only chance to leave what happened with the part of yourself that is still yours. Children learn it. Boys, but more often, and more closely, girls. When girls learn it, they learn it for the rest of their lives, inventing two separate planes on which they exist - the life of the surface, presented for others, and the life forever lived on the inside, the one that owns you. They will never forget how to make themselves disappear. To blend into the air.  

She turns, giving me her ultimate nonplussed look. “You may not know this about yourself,” she says, “but you’ve got a serious gift for self-containment. You run a pretty tight f*ckin ship, presentation-wise. Kind of freaks people out.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Swimming Lessons

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Tin House Books: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 356 pages
ISBN-13: 9781941040515

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller is a very highly recommended family drama/mystery. "Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below." Gil Coleman saw his dead wife, Ingrid, twelve years after she disappeared and followed her outside into the rain where he ended up falling and is hospitalized. It is discovered that Gil is dying from cancer. Daughters Nan and Flora meet at the family home. Gil's sighting of Ingrid is not believed by sensible Nan, who writes it off to senility, but Flora believes her mother is still alive.

Ingrid Coleman disappeared in 1992, leaving behind her older husband and two daughters. It was believed that she drowned since it was well known that she loved her daily swims in the sea, but her body was never found. Gil and Ingrid met in 1976 when she was a university student in his literature class. An affair starts, Ingrid discovers she is pregnant, and the two marry. Gil is dismissed from the university and the two settle in his family home in Dorset where Gil also has a writing cottage. But Gil is a womanizing philanderer and not even remotely faithful.

The rooms and halls of the family home are lined with thousands of books that Gil has collected over the years. It was the same way when Ingrid first moved in the house. As Ingrid learns more and more about Gil's character, she turns to writing letters. Her letters tell the brutally honest story of their marriage. After she finishes a letter, she tucks it into one of Gil's books where it awaits discovery. Each letter concludes with the name of the book in which that letter was hidden.

Swimming Lessons is told through two timelines. The present day shows Flora's perspective and the decline of Gil. The past is recounted through Ingrid's detailed letters, telling the story of their marriage. Through Ingrid's letters, the past is exposed and more and more secrets and betrayals are revealed in their troubled marriage.

This is an incredible, well-written book. I was engrossed and invested in the story from beginning to end. The writing is phenomenal. I loved the epistolary parts of the novel that tell the story of the early years through Ingrid point of view. I loved the juxtaposition of the present and the past. There are surprising revelations toward the end and an epilogue that adds depth. The characters are well developed and fully realized. The intricate story reaches a satisfactory conclusion that made me want to read Claire Fuller's first book asap.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company and Tin House Books

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Three Years with the Rat

Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking
St. Martin's Press: 1/24/17
eBook review copy: 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250116307

Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking is a highly recommended debut genre-bending novel about a young man looking for his sister.

The unnamed narrator in Three Years with the Rat is called by various nicknames, Grace's little brother, Scruffy by a friend, and Danger by his new Toronto girlfriend, Nicole (or Trouble.) When our narrator, an underachiever with no real life goals, moves to Toronto where Grace and John, her boyfriend, live, he meets their friends and is included in their social circle. Grace is graduate student in psychophysics. She and John are working on a project involving rats and "subjective time."

When John and Grace's landlord calls and wants him to clean out their apartment because they are gone, our narrator discovers in their apartment a handmade wooden box big enough to crawl inside and lined with mirrors, Buddy the rat, a notebook written in code, and a note that says: This is the only way back for us. Now he must unravel what they did and how to get them back. He knows that somehow Buddy can disappear and travel back and forth between wherever space the box leads to and where our narrator lives.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time over the three years in the title, 2006-2008, so readers will want to pay attention to what year they are in which is noted at the start of each chapter. That doesn't mean you will understand everything that is happening during that timeline, but eventually more and more information is revealed that will help you later. This shifting chronology makes the presentation feel fragmented, so you will have to overcome this as you are reading.

The novel itself has elements of science fiction, a mystery, suspense/horror, and magic realism. It is definitely not straight science fiction. The writing is good. Characters aren't as well developed as I prefer so I was never fully invested in what happens to them, and the dialogue is awkward. While the narrator seeks answers about where his sister and John went, he is also seeking answers about what happened with his relationship with Nicole, and he's trying to care for Buddy.

All this seems like I might rate Three Years with the Rat lower, but I was intrigued by the idea and was able to overlook some elements of the presentation to get to the end of the story. It's not fully resolved, but enough for closure. Additionally, I was eager to read what happened next and thought about Three Years with the Rat after I was finished with the novel. 3.5 rounded up.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

This Is Not Over

This Is Not Over by Holly Brown
HarperCollins: 1/17/17
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062456830

This Is Not Over by Holly Brown is a recommended novel (highly for the right reader) of domestic suspense.

Dawn Thiebold, 30, is incensed when she reads Miranda Feldt's email informing her that her security deposit, minus $200 for the stained sheets which had to be replaced, will be refunded to her within seven business days. Dawn and Rob, her husband, rented the Santa Monica beach house as a mini-vacation for Dawn to escape from her real life and pretend to be something better, something more than her reality. Dawn is always trying to outrun her past - as well as her complexion. Although she's married to a perfect man, they live in a tiny run-down apartment in Oakland. Dawn isn't working while she finishes her degree in communications, so essentially Miranda is stealing from her husband. She decides to write a negative review about renting Miranda's house because it did not live up to her fantasies.

Miranda rents out the Santa Monica beach house that she inherited from her parents (for $600 a day) because she needs the money. Sure her husband is a doctor and it appears that her life is one of privilege and ease, but appearances aren't everything. She needs that income for her son, Thad. She can't allow one bad review out about her property since it could threaten future income. The rental income is her only source of funds that she can siphon money from to send her son. She cannot allow Dawn's negative review to stay posted.

The chapters alternate between the two characters. Each chapter opens with some form of contact by one, and then the interpretation or misinterpretation of the communication by the other as she goes about her daily life. The chapters then provide insight into each woman. Slowly backgrounds and personal information is revealed which offers some explanation for their reactions. 

I really liked the concept of this book and could totally see how a partial return of a security deposit and a negative rating could send two people into battle mode. If you've ever worked closely with other people (on a job, sat on a board or a committee, in any service-industry, etc.) you've seen people get angry over various minor perceived injustices or opinions that differ from their own and have the discussions escalate into the absurd, ridiculous, and petty. The ability today to take these opinions and disagreements online and not in person (email, social forums, Facebook, twitter, texting, etc.) is a situation almost guaranteed to have some people go to extremes. I'm sure almost everyone has some stories to tell along this line; I know I have some great ones.

The problem I had with This Is Not Over lies neither with the writing, which is good, nor the initial hook. I started it and was eager to finish it. I had two problems with it. The first is that the characters are not likeable, and, in fact, were both a bit whinny and narcissistic.  It became increasingly difficult to care what happened to either of them - or their husbands. The second problem ties into the first. The novel started to feel repetitive and overly long. In the end, the promised suspense was pretty mild considering how minor disagreements can explode into huge battles anymore (see the local news).

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.



Sunday, January 22, 2017

Of G-Men and Eggheads

Of G-Men and Eggheads by John Rodden
University of Illinois Press: 1/30/17
eBook review copy; 152 pages
ISBN-13: 9780252081941

Of G-Men and Eggheads: The FBI and the New York Intellectuals by John Rodden is a recommended account of the FBI files kept on three men: Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, and Lionel Trilling.

"During the Cold War, dissent against U.S. international policy was looked upon as inherently suspicious. No one was more suspicious than outspoken left-leaning intellectuals, especially those who lived in Manhattan. For national security reasons, the federal government expended considerable resources surveilling men and women who might harbor communist sympathies and exert influence over others. In this book, John Rodden reveals how the FBI and CIA kept track of three highly regarded New York intellectuals--Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, and Irving Howe"

Three mid-20th century American intellectuals were investigated by and had extensive files kept on them by the FBI. It was under the assumption that they all presented some kind of security risk and anti-American sentiments. Although each of them were "critical Americans" in that they raised questions about policy or government activities, they did not warrant the scrutiny or the intense surveillance by the FBI. With all the current questions about FBI investigations, the NSA collecting data on and tracking Americans, and privacy concerns of average citizens, Of G-Men and Eggheads raises some important questions about how much surveillance we will allow to be conducted on citizens today. Where is the line of personal privacy versus public safety.

This is a well-researched presentation of the historical records. The text includes photos, notes, and an index.

I might have rated this higher if my review copy wasn't one that left out the letters "f, i, l, t." It makes it a struggle to smoothly read the text and, sometimes, decipher the words. Also, all dates were left out of my copy so I had to do my own research while reading the book. Two examples of what I had to wade through should make my struggles real to those who don't read advanced reading copies for review purposes:
 "War of – (and again a er ) lay in Russia. e immigration of such Russian Jews into the United States o en raised"
"this seasoned veteran of internecine Le sectarian warfare would have proudly brandished his les of yesteryear"

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Armor of Glass

Armor of Glass by R. M. A. Spears
IndieReader: 10/31/16
eBook review copy; 232 pages
ISBN-13: 9780990887195

Armor of Glass by R. M. A. Spears is a so-so novel that reads like an autobiography.

"A lieutenant colonel once warned me I was brutally honest. I considered myself a realist, not a skeptic or cynic. What I thought to be brash and bold, many took as ass and a hole. I think not, therefore I am not. I settled on my first nickname, Brick..." Brick is a hard-working every-man. He has been a husband, father, soldier, Marine. Brick feels beleaguered and put upon by almost everyone in his life. He is skilled at making poor decisions and life choices that he subsequently blames on other people. He blames everyone for his mistakes except the one woman he loves and never married - Cameo.

Armor of Glass features a disagreeable main character who feels sorry for himself and throws blame at everyone else even though he brings many of his problems as an adult on himself. The abuse by a coach when he is young is unforgivable. He should have had some kind of counseling for this since it is implied that this determined the course of his whole life. However, his affairs and throwing blame toward his wife who he portrays as treating him wrong is untenable. If you are sleeping around and so is your wife, it is not evil of her but okay for you because you feel your lover is your long-lost love. And this guy really doesn't like women; or he likes them, but it's all about what he wants out of them and them meeting his every need. There is no question of his even thinking about meeting a woman's needs, because it's all about him. Someone needs therapy here, even though they don't believe in it.

Although the cover says it is a novel, the description says it is based on a true story. After finishing reading Armor of Glass, I felt repulsed and regretted the time spent reading it when I thought it was a poorly organized memoir. Then, when I thought perhaps it might be a novel, it was still not good, but not as bad. Wade into this one at your own risk and decide what you think; 2 stars if it's really a novel.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Depraved Heart

Depraved Heart by Patricia Cornwell
HarperCollins: 1/3/17
trade paperback; 496 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062561329
Dr. Kay Scarpetta Series #23

Depraved Heart by Patricia Cornwell is a highly recommended addition for fans of the long running Dr. Kay Scarpetta series. It is set during one day.
Scarpetta is at a crime scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts, investigating the death of a young woman. While taking note of the scene and her observations, Scarpetta receives a message, a video, from Lucy's in case of emergency (ICE) cell phone line. While simultaneously watching the video and observing the crime scene, Scarpetta knows two things. First, from the initial impression of the scene it appears the death was accidental, but upon further observation it seems to have been staged. Second, Lucy is in trouble.

The video sent to her was a surveillance film of Lucy taken almost twenty years ago by Carrie Grethen at the FBI academy when she was Lucy's mentor and lover. Carrie, a sociopath and the archenemy of both Scarpetta and Lucy, is the depraved heart "void of social duty and fatally bent on mischief." Scarpetta rushes to Lucy's house where she discovers the FBI is in the middle of a raid. They are harassing Lucy and trying to build a case, any case against her. "Data fiction" may play a part in the case being built against her. But even more suspect is how and why Lucy's harassment may be related to the death scene Scarpetta is investigating.

Patricia Cornwell is an accomplished writer. Her long-running Scarpetta series indicates just how talented she is at writing great crime scene investigation/psychological thrillers that keep her huge fan base reading. I started reading the Scarpetta series from the beginning and stayed with it for years until I finally took a break from it several novel ago. Depraved Heart provided some of what I love about Cornwell's books - the great writing and the detailed scene investigation - and also why I took a break from the series. The positives are the quality of the writing, the tight focus of the plot, and the tense atmosphere. The downside is that this is the 23rd book in a series so it is competing with all the other books in the series for a rating. That is tough competition.

It's a given that I know the characters and could jump into Depraved Heart after a hiatus from the series. If you have never read any Scarpetta books, this is not the place to start. At All. Go back to the beginning and work your way through them. At this point the characters are so established and so well-developed that long-time readers know them intimately. It's simply a fact that you can't include a detailed background of these characters for new readers after so many novels featuring them.

Is Depraved Heart my favorite addition to the series and worthy of my highest rating? Nope. Is it a huge disappointment? Nope. I like Kay Scarpetta. I enjoyed the novel, was hooked to the end and felt like it was a perfectly satisfactory novel. I do wish questions were answered and threats removed rather than continuing. It's a 3.5 for me (rounded up). It's not going to be one of my favorite books in the series, but it's not worth a horrible review.

After I finished reading I was ready for Scarpetta to take a break from Marino, Benton, and Lucy. It's my opinion that the woman needs some quiet time to reflect on the way her loved ones treat her and how much she should be willing to tolerate. Perhaps a break from them would help Marino, Benton and Lucy realize how much they need and depend on her. (Not that I could ever tell Patricia Cornwell how to write any novel.)

Disclosure: My copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper
Flatiron Books: 1/10/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781250105608

The Dry by Jane Harper is a very highly recommended tense, atmospheric mystery. An incredible debut novel set in Kiewarra, a small Australian town, during a devastating drought.

Melbourne-based Federal Agent Aaron Falk saw the headlines. Luke Hadler, his best childhood friend, was found dead, as were his wife, Karen, and their son, Billy. It appears that Luke killed his wife and son, leaving his baby daughter alive and crying in her crib. Then he drove off and found a place to kill himself. Falk, who left Kiewarra twenty years ago is summoned to attend the funeral by Gerry Hadler, Luke's father. After calling him about the arrangements, Gerry sent Falk a note saying: "Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral."

Twenty years ago Aaron Falk and his father left Kiewarra under a cloud of suspicion that Aaron had something to do with the death of his friend Ellie Deacon. When he was under the scrutiny of the police at the time, he and Luke gave each other bogus alibis for the afternoon, which saved him from any charges being filed. Now as Falk is back, the residents in the small town remember why he left before and many of them are determined to make sure he knows he is not welcome in the town.

In the meantime, even though Falk was planning to go back to Melbourne as soon as possible, he is asked by Gerry to help Sergeant Greg Raco to look into the case. As he and Raco begin to work together, it is clear that despite what seems obvious at first, this may not be a murder/suicide. As the two investigate, the bad blood between Malcolm Deacon, father of Ellie, and his nephew Grant Dow boils to the surface. But there are plenty of hidden secrets and suspicions in the small town.

The Dry is simply an excellent novel that meets all my criteria for a perfect mystery. The quality of Harper's writing is brilliant.  It is an engaging,
extremely well-written, and finely paced novel. 

The setting is perfectly described and sets the tone and atmosphere. It's a small, mean town beaten down by drought and poverty and alcoholism. Many citizens in the town are cliquish, petty, and hold grudges, as well as secrets, from decades past. 

The main characters are well-developed. There are plenty of suspects at the start and even more surface as the investigation continues. Harper keeps the tension increasing at a steady pace as she divulges the backstory alongside the current investigation. 

Falk is an enigma, but appealing main character. He is closed off emotionally, but you know he is intelligent. When he agrees to stay for a short time and assist in the investigation, it is clear how much he would rather go back to Melbourne and shake the dust of Kiewarra off his shoes forever, but he understands his obligation to help Gerry and Barb Hadler find closure.
There are suspects-a-plenty, but Harper surprised me at the end.

No question about it: if you like mysteries read T
he Dry.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books

The Fifth Letter

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty
HarperCollins: 1/24/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062413567

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty is a recommended story set in Australia of four long-time friends and secrets.

Joni Camilleri, Deb Camden, Trina Chan, and Eden Chester have all been friends since they attended high school together in 1993. Joni initially brought the four together because they are all Scorpios with surnames ending in C. Now it is 2016, they are all married and everyone but Joni is a mother. Joni has planned their annual girls' getaway at a rented beach house. Feeling that they are losing their connection to each other, Joni comes up with the idea that they will each write a letter sharing a secret with the group. These letters are read, one at a time, over the following days. As each letter is read, the friends discuss the secret as if none of them wrote it. But there is a fifth letter that was written. The writer tried to burn it in the fireplace, but it survived. Apparently one of the four friends is seething with anger and hates another one.

The Fifth Letter is told in chapters that alternate between the present day get-together and flashbacks to their high school days. Interspersed are scenes of Joni meeting with a priest to give a long confession where she is essentially telling the story of the friends and their secrets, and little excerpts from the fifth letter.

It is an enjoyable, well written book, as far as a light read for escapism goes, but it's not that mysterious, psychologically complex, surprising, or dark. While the characters are different, they are not especially well-developed or complicated. I guess I didn't find the secrets all that shocking or any surprising plot twists either. This is a novel you kick back to read for fun, not heart-pounding suspense or shocking plot reveals. It succeeds on that level.

While the desire to read the four secrets and find out who wrote the fifth makes for a irresistible hook, The Fifth Letter was a bit of a letdown. Of course you don't know what other people, even close friends, are thinking or doing. Of course they have secrets or private parts of their lives. And, given the way life really is, the most serious secrets aren't even in the letters. Additionally, maybe it's just me, but I found it very difficult to take seriously four women friends who still refer to themselves as "girls." They are supposed to be in their late thirties, 38, so they should be beyond that now even if they became friends when they were girls.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Aisles Have Eyes

The Aisles Have Eyes by Joseph Turow
Yale University Press: 1/17/17
eBook review copy; 344 pages
ISBN-13: 9780300212198

The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power by Joseph Turow is very highly recommended.

It should be no surprise to consumers today how our purchases and interests are being tracked. What may surprise you is the extent of that tracking and the potential information the retail stores can and are gathering. Turow explains how retail stores are entering a new, hypercompetitive era with internet sellers. The brick-and-mortar stores will succeed only if they figure out how to trace, quantify, profile, and discriminate among shoppers. Stores now have the ability to track our movements and capture data about us through what we carry - our smart phones, bluetooth devices, fitbits, tablets, etc. If you have the GPS on your smart phone turned on, chances are you are also being tracked. The goal is to track our movements and what we buy, and then score our attractiveness as consumers based on that information. I would imagine almost all of us have noticed the personalized discounts often linked to our store rewards cards.

After providing background information on the history of retail stores, Turow moves into the advances in recent years, such as online stores like Amazon, and the emergence of Wal-Mart, a store with a super-efficient ability to send merchandise to stores for the continuous ability to restock items quickly. Even though these two retail giants can be much abased by some camps, they are the future of retail stores where the goal is now to find your niche or a way to stay competitive, thus profiling customers, collecting data, tracking their movements, and maybe even using facial recognition software to collect information about each individual who shops at your store. Think about this bit of information: "Acxiom executive Phil Mui claimed that 'for every consumer we have more than 5,000 attributes of customer data.'" The ultimate question is how much of this will consumers put up with this invasion of privacy and profiling of each customer before they decide enough is enough.

As Turow provides the background information and the extent that the retail community is using current technology to track us and get us to buy products by personalizing coupons or discounts.  This is a well-written, thoroughly researched, accessible account of the future of shopping and provides startling insights about the prevalence of data collecting on individual consumers. The text includes extensive notes and an index.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Phantom Limb

Phantom Limb by Lucinda Berry
Rise Press: 1/17/17
Ebook review copy: 260 pages
ISBN-13: 9781541034952

Phantom Limb by Lucinda Berry is a very highly recommended psychological thriller, with a focus on the psychological.

Elizabeth has overcome a tragic childhood. Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily were abused, neglected children who were rescued and taken away from their nightmare of an excuse for a mother and adopted by Bob and Dalila Rooth. The psychological damage had already been done, however, and the two girls clung to each other. Now a young adult in college, Elizabeth is becoming worn out caring for her still-wounded and damaged sister Emily. Elizabeth has a boyfriend, Thomas, that she'd like to introduce to her sister, but she is unsure that Emily is well enough to handle the news. Emily struggles with the urge to self-injury, along with giving in to her own internal personal suffering and depression.

Elizabeth decides to talk to her childhood therapist, Lisa, about introducing Thomas to Emily. Although talking to Lisa is a comfortable experience, something seems a bit amiss in their meeting, but Elizabeth plans to have more sessions with her. She is also determined to have Thomas meet Emily, but Emily reacts badly. When Emily seeks out Thomas and warns him to stay away from Elizabeth, the two sisters have a huge fight and Elizabeth sleeps on the coach. When she wakes up, she finds Emily in the bathroom, with pills and blood... That is all Elizabeth remembers when she wakes up a week later in the hospital and is moved to the psychiatric unit. What happened?

This is a gripping, well written thriller that explores the psychology behind what happened to Elizabeth. As a character driven drama, you could almost call it a psychological procedural, as Elizabeth works through what happened and facts are slowly revealed. The actual psychology behind the emerging secrets is a pleasure to see in a work of fiction. There are a couple shocking twists. The first might be guessed by astute readers of psychological dramas. The second twist you won't likely see coming until it is revealed.

I enjoyed Phantom Limb a great deal and was initially going to give it my highest possible rating, but then, suddenly, a fact hit my brain and I had to go down at least 1/2 a star. (I actually consulted with someone about my question to confirm that I was right.) I can't discuss openly any of it or I'll ruin the book, and I'm not giving any spoilers. For most readers my one concern won't matter an iota. This is an engrossing thriller and it will hold your rapt attention from beginning to end. 

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Heather Harrison at Rise Press.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Fireman

The Fireman by Joe Hill
HarperCollins: 1/3/17
Trade paperback; 768 pages
trade paperback ISBN-13: 9780062200648

The Fireman by Joe Hill is a very highly recommended apocalyptic novel about a pandemic, cults, and the end of the world.

We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion and there is no cure. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, nicknamed Dragonscale, is a spore that marks its human host with black and gold-flecked marks, like a fine intricate tattoo that spreads. Once infected those with Dragonscale are also quite likely to burst into flames. People and cities are on fire and the highly contagious plague is rapidly spreading. But panic is spreading faster and people can be even more ruthless than Dragonscale.

Harper Grayson is a nurse who loves Mary Poppins. She was at an elementary school, until the school closes after a man wanders onto the playground and bursts into flames. She goes to work at a hospital, wearing full biohazard protective gear, in Concord, NH, until the hospital burns down. At the hospital, she met an enigmatic fireman with a British accent who brought in a child with appendicitis.

Harper and Jakob, her husband, had a pact to take their own lives if either of them became infected. When Harper discovers that she is pregnant and then finds the telltale black and gold-flecked filigreed markings of Dragonscale, she decides she wants to live for the sake of her baby. At the hospital she saw infected mothers deliver healthy babies and she is sure she can survive long enough to do this. Her husband Jakob has other plans. He is losing his tenuous grip on his sanity and is sure she has infected him and that they both must die.

Harper is rescued by The Fireman, aka John Rookwood. He, along with some masked helpers, takes her to Camp Wyndham. It used to be a summer camp, but now it houses a group of 'scale-marked survivors who have found a way to control the Dragonscale, although not to the extent that The Fireman can use it for his purposes. The camp has a cult-like hive-mind atmosphere, as the members sing to the Bright. But there are other cults developing across the land and Jakob joins with the Marlboro Man as part of the Cremation Squads who seek out those infected with Dragonscale and kill them.

All people, left, right, pacifists, militant, any religion, racial group, or sexual orientation, are susceptible to cult-like group-think behavior. All of us. Even as some of us see or acknowledge the behavior, on all sides, that doesn't stop it. Hill has captured this truism with clarity in The Fireman while giving us a rousingly clever, brilliant story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part social commentary. It is a perfectly epic apocalyptic thriller.  At 768 pages, I was surprised at how quickly I read The Fireman. I give credit to the exceptional writing, captivating story, wonderful, fully realized characters, and the astute, chilling realism of people's behavior in an inconceivable situation.

There are a plethora of pop culture and literary references included in The Fireman. I found myself smiling when spotting them, and saying "Nice one, Joe." It'll be fun for other readers to find them while enjoying The Fireman.

Disclosure: My trade paperback copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Night of Fire

Night of Fire by Colin Thubron
HarperCollins: 1/17/17
eBook review copy: 384 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062499745

Night of Fire by Colin Thubron is a recommended story of seven lives.

The old Victorian house that was divided into apartments years ago is on fire. Night of Fire delves into the lives of the tenants who will be dying in the fire on this night. The inhabitants whose life stories are told include a failed priest, a neurosurgeon, a naturalist, a photographer, a school boy, a traveller, and the landlord. The landlord has two chapters, one at the beginning and the end. The rest of the victims and their lives are covered in long chapters devoted to them. The basement tenant is mentioned, but as a victim who died immediately. Thubron uses the musings and recollections of these people to explore life's essential questions, memories and seeking answers to find a deeper meaning in their existence. All of them are either named Steven or some derivative of the name: Stephen, Steve, Stephanie.

While beautifully written, I was left detached and unable to connect with the stories of these people. The setting, in a burning house, where you know these people are all going to die, never coalesced for me into a cohesive whole. The long chapters on the lives of these various tenants are all like short stories until their fate is met. I would concede that perhaps I need to contemplate Night of Fire more to divulge more meaning and connections between characters, but it also left me with no burning desire to do so. The rating is based on the quality of the writing and the fact that I found some of the stories very intriguing and captivating, just not all of them.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, January 9, 2017


Fungoid by William Meikle
DarkFuse: 1/17/17
eBook review copy; 177 pages
ISBN-13: 9781940544748

Fungoid by William Meikle is a highly recommended fungal apocalyptic novel set in Canada.
"When the end came, it wasn’t zombies, asteroids, global warming or nuclear winter. It was something that escaped from a lab. Something small, and very hungry.
It starts with deadly rain that delivers death where it falls, but soon the whole planet is under threat as the infection spreads, consuming everything before it."

The action starts quickly in Fungoid. The apocalypse is fungal, but it seemed to be a totally new species that appeared out of nowhere and was likely genetically engineered. This fungus is voracious. The fungus spores are falling in oily rain showers across the world and everywhere they fall, chaos follows as people and the whole environment are immediately infected. The fungus eats everything carbon based and once the spores fall, they take hold, spreading, covering everything, hungry.

Fungoid follows four different characters as they try to survive the fungal attack. Jim is a first response rescuer who is right in the thick of the infestation. Rebecca is a mother to two boys who is trying to survive and keep her kids alive. Shaun, Rebecca's husband, is trying to make it home from his logging job. Dr. Rohit Patel is a mycologist who provides all the science and background information on fungi.

This is a fast paced, very entertaining novel that is a short, quick read. This isn't a character study of how those involved handle the end of the world. It's an action-packed novel with a nice combination of science fiction/horror/suspense that provides an apocalyptic end to the world reminiscent of other biological takeovers (The Day of the Triffids, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) I liked it quite a bit, in spite of a few minor complaints.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of DarkFuse.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Why Won't You Apologize?

Why Won't You Apologize? by Harriet Lerner
Touchstone: 1/10/17
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501129599

Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts by Harriet Lerner is very highly recommended, accessible discourse on apologies. This is a practical guide that anyone can understand and benefit from. The information and examples are presented with wit and intelligence. Why Won't You Apologize? would be a great addition to anyone's self-help library.

Through stories and examples Dr. Lerner explores the healing power of a good apology, how important apologies are, how to craft a meaningful apology and avoid bad apologies, non-apologies, or those that make the hurt worse, and the importance of our response to an apology. Both the non-apologizer and the over-apologizer are discussed. The needs of the injured party are addressed as well as setting limits for tolerating unkindness when listening to another person. Dr. Lerner shares twelve points to keep in mind when we’re on the receiving end of criticism and looks at healthy vs. unhealthy anger. Dr. Lerner also candidly explains why the people who do the worst things are the least able to own up to what they have done. In a startling, first-time-for-me revelation, she helps the injured person resist pressure to forgive too easily and challenges the popular notion that forgiveness is the only path to peace of mind.

"This book will teach you how to craft a deeply meaningful apology, and decode apologies that are blame-reversing, ambiguous, and downright mean. Going beyond the “how-to’s” of the good apology, we’ll be looking at compelling stories that illustrate how much the simple apology matters and why we so often muck it up. We’ll also be looking at heroic apologies that can open the door to forgiveness and healing in even the most difficult circumstances.
As the title Why Won’t You Apologize? suggests, the chapters ahead are also for the hurt or angry person who has received a weaselly or insincere apology - or none at all. When we’ve been insulted or injured by someone who just doesn’t get it, we can learn the steps necessary to change the tone of the conversation and get through."

Harriet Lerner, PhD is a respected relationship experts. Renowned for her work on the psychology of women and family relationships, she served as a staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic for several decades. A distinguished lecturer, consultant, and psychotherapist, she is the author of numerous scholarly articles and popular books.


Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Simon&Schuster.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Her Every Fear

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson
HarperCollins: 1/10/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062427021

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson is a highly recommended novel of suspense.

Kate Priddy suffers from panic attacks and anxiety due to a terrifying experience with an ex-boyfriend. Kate, who lives in London, agrees to a 6 month apartment switch with Corbin Dell, her second cousin who lives on Beacon Hill in Boston. Hoping that a change will help her heal from her emotional trauma, she is planning to take a couple of art classes while in Boston.  On the day of her arrival Corbin's next-door neighbor, Audrey Marshall, is discovered murdered. The police are questioning tenants, including Kate, who doesn't know Corbin; in fact, she has never met him, so she doesn't have a lot of personal information to provide the investigators about him. Still suffering from jet lag, Kate is thrust right into a murder investigation, while meeting new people who may or may not be involved, and her growing suspicion that Corbin may be involved.

Her Every Fear  is a solid, intense thriller that reaches a satisfying conclusion. It is well-written. After a slow start, it does ratchet the suspense up as the novel progresses. The narrative is told through several different points of view. There is no shockingly unexpected twist or surprise, but it is creepy. As a character driven novel, there is some repetition and retelling of the same events. Actually, Her Every Fear would make a good movie. You'd have to work on some of the issues (below) but as a movie much of the repetition could be avoided and the creepiness played up. 

There were a couple problems/nagging questions with the novel for me. They are all quite obvious. Why on earth would Kate agree to an apartment switch with a cousin she never met, quit her job, and move to Boston for 6 months? How does this mesh with someone who suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks? How is she supporting herself? It seems that her recovery would progress more in London (and doubtful, to me, that any mother worth that designation would encourage her daughter to do this after the trauma she went through). Why would she be chatting up strangers the way she does? I have no anxiety disorders and I wouldn't be talking to all these people, freely providing personal information. And how does one person manage to be such a psychopath magnet? Where are the rational decisions? 3.5 for me.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Where I Can See You

Where I Can See You by Larry D. Sweazy
Seventh Street Books: 1/10/17
eBook review copy; 255 pages
ISBN-13: 9781633882119

Where I Can See You by Larry D. Sweazy is a highly recommended police procedural - and a man looking for past answers.

Hud Matthews has accepted a position as a homicide detective somewhere where he said he'd never return to - his home town, a decaying vacation/destination lakeside community. After recovering from a gunshot wound while with the Detroit PD, Hud has accepted a position from a childhood buddy who, like his father before him, is now the police chief, Paul Burke. Hud is still haunted by the disappearance of his mother. When he was eight years old she walked out to get into a big, shiny black car and never returned. Hus spent his childhood searching for her, with Gee, his grandmother. Now Gee has passed away and Hud is back, still wondering what happened to his mother years earlier.

When the body of Pamela Lynn Sizemore is found half in and half out of Demmie Lake, Hud's skills are needed on the investigation. It appears that Pamela was cooking meth and a drug dealer, but as bodies and questions mount, the answers may not be as simple as a drug deal gone badly. Even as Hud works on the current investigation, he is still trying to find out what happened to his mother years earlier. And it appears that the locals aren't exactly forthcoming with answers to his questions on either case.

Sweazy keeps the gloom and doom atmosphere heavy in this investigation, and not only because it is set in the fall. The former resort community is decaying and has lost all of its former charm. People are struggling to get by and a series of murders is not good for what little business they have left. Hud's investigation into the murders and his mother's disappearance seems to have upset more than one person in the community.

In between current chapters are transcripts from Hud being interrogated by an anonymous person. At first you think it might be the therapist he had to talk to in order to be cleared for work, but soon it seems that something else is going on that we aren't privy to yet, something to do with his mother. It helps keep the tension up as the current investigations continue. Hud is a flawed, well-developed character. The ending surprised me and was well done.

The only problem I had with Where I Can See You was Hud's interaction with Goldie. It was a gratuitous sex scene that really didn't add anything to the plot. After he had been gone for so many years and since he had no personal relationship with her in his youth, the immediate I-see-you-and-am-hot-for-you-now sex seemed stupid and absurd for such a analytical, deliberate man. Sure he has flaws, but I didn't think foolishness was among them. It would have been more believable if she had flirted with him and he reciprocated in kind, but kept her at a distance, knowing she might have information he needed in the future.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Year of Needy Girls

The Year of Needy Girls by Patricia A. Smith
Akashic Books: 1/3/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781617754876

The Year of Needy Girls by Patricia A. Smith is a recommended novel that explores small town bigotry.

Residents of Bradley, a small Massachusetts town, are all on edge when 10 year old Leo Rivera, a kid living on the wrong side of town, is kidnapped. When his body is later found, the paranoia of the whole town seems to escalate, looking for the killer and/or someone to blame for the crime. Deirdre Murphy, a high school French teach at a private girls school, is as concerned as the rest of the town over young Leo's murder, but she continues to find innovative ways to help her students learn French while supporting them. Her partner/girlfriend SJ Edmonds, is a local librarian. Their personal relationship is known to their employers and shouldn't be a problem - that is until the actions of Anna Worthington, a student of Deirdre's. Anna forge's her mother's signature on a permission slip for a class field trip. Then Anna decides to act on her crush and kisses Deirdre, right when Anna's mother is watching.

Deirdre is immediately suspended from her teaching job while the incident is under investigation. At the same time, SJ is thinking of ending their relationship. When Mickey Gilberto, an auto mechanic, is named as Leo's killer, SJ is shocked and doesn't believe it. She had been tutoring Mickey, helping him learn to read. The two events become tied together by the town, resulting in a citywide outbreak of homophobia. Deirdre and SJ are both reeling and unable to support each other.

Smith does a good job presenting how the two separate incidents became enmeshed with each other due to public actions, which, in turn, fueled the outrage as the two cases are investigated. But, there is no real suspense since we know what happened in both cases. It is more a character study and an exploration of the fear Deirdre and SJ are feeling and their mistakes and insecurities. They are the needy girls more than the high school students Deirdre taught.

While well written, this story has been told before in various forms and, perhaps, more successfully in other books. Bigotry can occur in a small town or a city over any one of a large number of issues. Teachers and other professionals, in a misguided attempt to be supportive and help, can neglect to set up boundaries between their students and themselves. Both of these women should have learned the importance of this years before this incident. In other words, why the heck did Deirdre think it was a good idea or acceptable to touch a high school student, if even to rub their back/head to try and be supportive? This applies to any teacher and student. Use your words; talk to them with an acceptable amount of personal space between you. (As a former educator, her personal choices lost me then and there.) 

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Akashic Books.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Everything You Want Me to Be

Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
Atria/Emily Bestler Books: 1/3/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781501123429

Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia  is a highly recommended murder mystery set in a small town.

Hattie Hoffman is a high school senior in Pine Valley, Minnesota. She is a natural actress and has spent her whole life playing the part others wanted her to play - good daughter, brave sister, supportive friend, good student. When she is found stabbed to death in an abandoned barn after the opening night of her high school play, local Sheriff Del Goodman must try to figure out who would want Hattie dead. His investigation is complicated by the fact that he is a good friend of the family and it is set in a very small town.

Mejia tells the story of the investigation and the events over the past school year that have led up to Hattie's murder through the point of view of three narrators: Sheriff Del Goodman, Hattie, and Peter Lund, a high school teacher in an unhappy marriage. Goodman's chapters are set after the murder as he tries to unravel the story of why Hattie was murdered to solve the case.

I liked Del Goodman throughout the whole novel, but became tired of Hattie and Peter. Hattie is a skilled manipulator who managed to play everyone around her, while Peter just became too weak and whiny to elicit any sympathy or support from me. Even with that said, Mejia managed to keep me interested in the investigation and I was surprised by the final resolution. It is a compelling novel and you will find it engaging beginning to end.

The quality of the writing sets what could be considered a standard mystery novel a step higher. This is a character driven novel and Mejia does an excellent job presenting her characters, flaws and all. The case is solved incrementally by Del as the other chapters go through the events of the past school year in the point of view of Hattie and Peter. There is a surprising twist at the end.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Atria/Emily Bestler Books.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
Grand Central Publishing: 1/3/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781455540006

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston is a very highly recommended true adventure with new discoveries and hidden dangers.

Preston takes us along on an archeological search set deep into unexplored areas of the Honduran jungle in search of the White City or the City of the Monkey God. Rumors, with locals and previous explorers, have abounded for years of its existence, and that it is, perhaps, cursed. Along with the current expedition, he provides us with the background information of other searches for the city, the history of the area, and explains the current technology (LiDAR) that made it possible to pin point the location(s) of the ruins of a lost city in the jungle.

It is risky enough going on an expedition to a rain forest jungle, let alone an area untouched by humans for centuries. There are frightening encounters with poisonous snakes (the fer-de-lance encounter will sober anyone up), jaguars, spiders, scorpions, roaches, sand flies, mosquitoes, and diseases, like malaria, dengue fever and the leishmaniasus. They also need to avoid any drug cartel members. Adding to the mix were the intricate politics involved with mounting an expedition (or flying a plane in the area). It is an incredible, riveting account and had me glued to the pages.

The academics who wrote a letter criticizing the expedition and had other colleagues and students sign it really was, simply put, obvious professional jealousy. The whole tone of it was petty and accused the team, who were all serious and respectful of the historical significance of the site for the Honduran people, of ignoring previous research. This was untrue. One academic even mocked the team for the size of the lost city until it was correctly pointed out that he had misread the scale bars. (Really makes a nice professional statement about academia, huh?) For the record, ten PhD scientists were involved with the expedition, in contrast to the complaining scholars who had never been to the site.

After returning home, it was discovered that half of the expedition, including 
Preston, had been infected with leishmaniasus, an awful incurable disease. They expedition members didn't know they had it until months after they returned home. It changes the tone of the account, but also provides valuable clues about the White City.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is a riveting account made even more descriptive and dramatic by Preston's prose. He's an extraordinary writer and brings all his abilities on board with this book. He had a National Geographic article published about the find first. This is nonfiction, but covers all the bases of a thriller. It is scary, exciting, informative, serious, dramatic, and engrossing, from start to finish. It's a winner and a great book to start off the new year.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.