Sunday, June 18, 2017

Wilders

Wilders by Brenda Cooper
Pyr Books: 6/13/17
eBook review copy; 367 pages
ISBN-13: 9781633882652

Wilders by Brenda Cooper is a highly recommended coming-of-age dystopian science fiction novel.

In the near future cities have expanded to megacities that take care of most of the populations every need. The land outside the cities is set aside for wilding, or returning it to a natural state, sans humans with the exception of those hired in the capacity to assist returning nature to a natural balance. Coryn Williams and her sister Lou grew up in Seacouver, a merging of Seattle and Vancouver.  After their parents' suicides, Lou was hired to join a rewilding crew and left the city. She left Coryn behind at an orphanage, occasional sending her bland emails about the beauty she sees in the wild. Once Coryn becomes of age, she chooses to leave the city with Paula, her companion robot, to look for her sister.

Outside the city's dome, the world is much different and more treacherous than Lou let on. Coryn is in almost constant peril of being harmed, robbed, and having Paula stolen from her. Even the weather, uncontrolled outside the city dome, is dangerous and unpredictable. While it seems that most people outside can't be trusted, Coryn manages to press on, meets a few people who may be friends, and she eventually does find Lou; but everything Lou wrote about outside to Coryn doesn't seem to reflect the reality of the life Lou is living. There is also some risky plan and private agenda between Lou and some people Coryn knows are evil. The only problem is that no one, not even Lou, trusts her enough to tell her what is going on.

This is the first book in a future series. Admittedly, I enjoyed Wilders considerably, although it felt like it was a whole lot longer than 367 pages while I was reading it. Part of the issue is that even though the plot has interesting little scenes or hooks in it to propel you forward with bursts of speed, the action is rather slow moving. Once you keep reading, not all the interesting bits are fully explained and the world building is a little lacking.

You need to set aside certain expectations and roll with the narrative in this case. The story flows smoothly, and we reach a conclusion of sorts, but obviously more books in the series will mean more information about the city, etc. Coryn is an interesting character and there are several other interesting characters along the way. Now, we don't get to know too much about any of them, except Coryn, but I'd imagine future books will flesh out people more completely. Wilders reads like a YA title and would be highly suitable for that audience.  This is a nice start to a new series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Pyr Books.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan
Scribner: 6/13/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501116841

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan is a very highly recommended, clever, appealing mystery with a likeable protagonist.

Lydia Smith, thirty, is a clerk at the Bright Ideas bookstore. When Joey Molina, one of her so-called "BookFrogs" (regulars who spend most of the day in the store), commits suicide on the third floor of the store just before closing time, she is devastated. She is also surprised to discover that twenty-year-old Joey has a picture from her tenth birthday party in his pocket. Joey also, inexplicably, left her name as the one to contact to inherit his meager worldly possessions. Lydia collects the books he seemed to have left for her, but the books are oddly defaced and may contain some sort of message.

As Lydia tries to figure out what was happening in Joey's life that led him to suicide, her traumatic past and buried memories begin to intrude on her thoughts. His suicide brings back terrible visions of her childhood when she suffered a traumatic event that changed her life. When Lydia's picture runs in the paper, it does help her best friend from that time, Raj Patel, reconnect with her, but it also helps a detective find her again. The answers about Joey's death seem to lead Lydia to reexamine her childhood and a twenty-year-old cold case.

This is an excellent novel. It is well paced, with an intricate plot that and a perplexing mystery. Along with the plot, Sullivan seamlessly describes and establishes an astute sense of place for all his characters. The characters are wonderfully realized - unconventional and realistic.  Lydia tells the present story and what is happening to her today. Flashbacks are told through her father's point-of-view to explain part of what happened in Lydia's childhood, until Lydia remembers what she experienced. It is perfectly presented and flows seamlessly from one part of the story to the next, past and present.

I was entranced by and riveted to every page of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Not only is it an excellent, clever novel, it's hard to believe it is a debut novel. I really liked the character of Lydia and her other friends at the bookstore. It's rather nice to have a great summer read with a likeable character where you want everything to turn out for the best.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Accomplished Guest

The Accomplished Guest: Stories by Ann Beattie
Scribner: 6/13/178
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501111389

The Accomplished Guest: Stories by Ann Beattie is a highly recommended collection of thirteen previously published short stories. This collection explores aging, mortality, fragile bonds between people, fate, friendships, and family. In several of the stories people are meeting for a social event or going out to dinner. Most of the people are older, in their sixties and up, have been married multiple times and seem discontented, perplexed, and very removed from any true connection with other people, even while they are meeting with them.  Beattie gives us glimpses into these lives with her immutable excellent prose and clear, astute voice. Not every story was a complete winner for me, but, nonetheless, this is an excellent collection.

The Indian Uprising: A former student visits her professor.
For the Best: A man heads to a holiday party where he expects to see his ex-wife.
The Astonishing Woodchopper: A couple is going to a wedding where tensions rise.
Anecdotes: An older self-centered mother overshares and hurts feelings.
Other People's Birthdays: A woman returns home to celebrate her sister's birthday.
Company: A professor has former students over for dinner.
The Debt: Middle aged frat brothers get together in Key West.
Lady Neptune: A wheelchair-bound woman attends a holiday party in Key West.
The Caterer: A caterer recruits help for a job and encounters problems.
The Gypsy chooses the Whatever Card: Women visiting in a coffee shop are interrupted by a robber.
The Cloud: A woman goes out to dinner with her uncle.
Hoodie in Xanadu: A woman forms a partnership with her neighbor who has transformed his living room into Xanadu.

Save a Horse Ride a Cowgirl: An older man feels at odds and out of place in the world.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Small Hours

Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses
Grand Central: 6/13/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455598526

Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses is a recommended domestic drama.

Helen Nichols and Tom Foster are in their forties and the parents of three-year-old twin daughters. They are regretting some of the decisions they have made, including buying their house in Devon, located in upstate New York. Unfortunately they are now upside-down in their mortgage and can't afford to leave. Tom has a long commute into Queens, while Helen tries to work from home. Neither are happy with the current arrangement. Both are exhausted. Both are stressed out from their jobs. Helen is a seething ball of rage and anger just under the surface. Tom is trying to be a father to the twins as well as another daughter born at the same time, a result of an affair.

Kitses debut novel focuses on an eventful, stressful twenty-four hour period with chapters alternating between the actions of Helen and Tom. Think 24, only focused on a perpetually exhausted, uncommunicative couple who both have work problems, are under paid, underappreciated, make increasingly poor choices, and in a crumbling marriage. But in this scenario there are no cool action scenes and no one is going to save the world, it is just a ticking clock, ever growing weariness, and one mishap and misstep after another.

What saved Small Hours from the quagmire of being simply yet another novel about a marriage falling apart is the excellent writing. While I didn't like either character (And what is this with an increasing number of books where I can not find a sympathetic character because they both have w-a-y too many issues and are in denial?) the quality of the writing does pull the novel out of muck to an at least acceptable level. (It is not to the level of quality of Richard Russo, as per the description.)


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Silent Corner

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz
Penguin Random House: 6/20/17
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345545992

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz is a very highly recommended conspiracy thriller and starts a new series. This is a perfect summer novel of suspense!

FBI agent Jane Hawk's husband, Nick, committed suicide, leaving behind a note that said, "I very much need to be dead." Jane knows that this is not her husband, a decorated Marine, a full colonel, on a career path to becoming a general. She needs to find out the truth behind his suicide and that of other capable, talented people. In fact, Jane knows that the suicide rate is dramatically increasing across the country. What is alarming is that these are people of accomplishment, of excellence. These are people who will make a difference or are making a difference. Why would these intelligent, proficient people be committing suicide?

After taking a leave of absence from the Bureau, Jane tries to find out the answer to the increasing suicide rate. When the life of her son is threatened, Jane knows they are a target. She hides her son and Jane goes rogue and underground. Clearly she is the target of powerful people who will do anything to stop her and there is no one she can trust. She has to rely on her skills to find the answers she needs. Who is behind the increasing suicide rate? How are they controlling people? More importantly, why? As she gets closer to the truth, the danger increases.

It is truly frightening to know how easily our every move can be tracked today.  Koontz takes real life technology and shows how the features built into it can be used to track people. It is frightening to realize how easily our every step and movement can be watched without us even realizing it. It's not the stuff of science fiction, it is fact.

The Silent Corner is an extremely well written, excellent thriller with incredible characterization and fast paced action. Jane Hawk is a fully realized, compelling character, full of depth, growth, and intelligence. It's good to know that this is the start of a series featuring her. It's also challenging. Because it is the start of a series there isn't complete closure or answers to all the questions.
There are terrific, nail-biting action scenes and narrow escapes. The suspense and threats grow but Jane narrowly manages to keep a clear head and a step ahead. And it's a great story.

Thriller/suspense fans: read this book. You won't regret it. After that you will be relieved to know that the second book in the Jane Hawk series, The Whispering Room, has a tentative release date of January 9, 2018.

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

The Party

The Party by Robyn Harding
Gallery/Scout Press: 6/6/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501161247

The Party by Robyn Harding is a so-so domestic drama.

Jeff and Kim Sanders are throwing a sweet sixteen birthday slumber party for their daughter, Hannah, and four of her friends. Kim has listed the house rules to the girls: no alcohol, no drugs, no boys. They provide food and leave the girls alone in the downstairs family room. Naturally, the girls don't follow the rules, resulting in disaster. One of the girls, drunk, crashes through a glass-topped coffee table and is rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. While the police investigation cleared the Sanders from culpability in the accident, the mother of the injured girl files a lawsuit asking for three million dollars. The impending lawsuit alienates friends and causes division, as secrets are revealed and nothing is as perfect as it appears.

The narrative is told through four characters: Kim, Jeff, Lisa (the mother of the injured girl), and Hannah. Sure, we learn their secrets, but the secrets are not as shocking as the blurb for the novel implies. They are, actually, pretty standard stuff and can be revealed on both sides of the lawsuit, something that no one seems to be pointing out about the mother of the injured girl. It also seems unlikely that one of the five girls would not break down and tell the truth instead of the half-truths/lies about what happened. 

Additionally, this is one of those novels filled with unlikable characters. You may try to find someone to pull for, but you will likely be let down as the few characters that seem to take a stand also don't seem to have a backbone. The ones telling you their side of the story never give you a reason to care. Harding does present the mean girls/high school queen bees social hierarchy effectively, although stereotypically.  Sometimes I like a novel where everyone is unreliable and unlikable, but it didn't quite work for me here.

For me, The Party missed the mark. It had potential, but something just never clicked for me. I grew very tired of all the characters and sort of wanted to lecture them to just grow up, adults and kids. I also found it hard to believe that a sixteen year old would want a sleep over party. Sorry, but that seems absurd to me. It also seemed odd that given they were doing this party, that the parents wouldn't be checking on the girls, staying awake all night to make sure they were following the rules. I'll also admit that I didn't like the ending. 

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

You'll Never Know, Dear

You'll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron
HarperCollins: 6/6/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062473615

You'll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron is a recommended novel of suspense featuring three generations of women and a mystery set in South Carolina.

Forty years ago four-year-old sister Janey Woodham disappeared from her year, along with the doll her mother made her. Janey's seven-year-old sister, Lissie, was supposed to be keeping an eye on her, but she ran after a a puppy that suddenly appeared in her yard. When Lissie returned home, Janey and her doll were gone. Now Lis has a daughter in college, but she still blames herself for Janey's disappearance. Her mother, Miss Sorrel, has fashioned individual, hand-made porcelain portrait dolls for years, with help from her bossy next-door neighbor Evelyn Dumont. Every year on the anniversary of Janey's disappearance she puts out an ad offering a large reward for a doll, Janey's doll, knowing that she will recognize it.

When a college student in a beat-up car answers the ad, Miss Sorrel knows it is Janey's doll, but the girl runs away rather than answering questions about where she got it. That night Miss Sorrel's kiln explodes, sending both her and Lis into the hospital and bringing Lis's daughter, Vanessa, home. This sets into motion a search for the mysterious young woman and an unraveling of a decades old mystery.

You'll Never Know, Dear is definitely more character driven than a novel of great suspense. The mystery is easy to figure out, so the pleasure in this one is in the characterizations of the women. Ephron does a nice job developing her characters and placing them in the context of the story.

While it starts out slowly and doesn't really provide much suspense until the end, it does reaches a satisfying conclusion, which makes it a good summer reading choice. In many ways this novel would actually make a better movie because of all the dolls that are collected and sitting around the house. I think the visuals of dolls, staring at the viewer, could make this much creepier and up the suspense. (Just consider the cover and a house full of staring dolls.)


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Perdition

Perdition by R. Jean Reid
Midnight Ink: 6/8/17
eBook review copy; 360 pages
ISBN-13: 9780738750651
Nell McGraw Series #2

Perdition by R. Jean Reid is a highly recommended mystery.

Recently widowed Nell McGraw has decided to stay in the small Gulf town with her two children and continue to run the weekly paper, the Pelican Bay Crier, founded by her husband's grandfather. Not that it's all that easy when long-time Sheriff Hickson and relatively new Police Chief Shaun can't seem to get along or cooperate with each other. First a young girl is murdered and then a young boy. Is there a serial killer on the loose in this small Mississippi town and can law enforcement manage to cooperate with each other long enough to find the killer.

As a journalist, Nell needs to keep digging and asking questions to try and get as much information as she can. To make things worse, the killer has taken to calling Nell late at night, disguising his voice, to tell her where the bodies are or just to taunt her. To further her stress, Nell has one great cub reporter and one worthless one, and the sexist bully in the police department who threatens Nell got his charges dropped due to his father's connections. Adding to everything is the fact that keeping track of her teen children is now her sole responsibility.

The writing is very good and Reid keeps the reader guessing about the identity of the killer. Sensitive readers should note that the prologue in Perdition is very graphic, albeit a good hook to keep you reading. It takes place in the past and the reader is left wondering how it fits into the present mystery.  The beginning of the novel moves at a fast pace but then the action/pace seems to slow down after that. Even though this a second book in the series, you needn't read the first book to enjoy this one.

I did have a few minor issues with Perdition. Nell should have just fired Carrie. If an employee constantly whines about doing her job to her boss and is incompetent at her job, then it is time for her to move on to something else. There is no reason Nell should have kept her around. Also many of the interactions with her kids, especially her daughter, became annoying. She tends to alternately  worry about both of them obsessively, anticipate her daughter's poor reactions, or forgets them completely. Perhaps the constant driving her kids around is realistic, but mentioning it so much became tiring and seemed out of place in the small town setting where her kids would both be riding bikes or walking to/from school. And since everyone in town knows there might be a killer on the loose, other people would likely help pick them up and drop them off.


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


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Dis Mem Ber

Dis Mem Ber and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense 
by Joyce Carol Oates
The Mysterious Press: 6/6/17
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802126528

Dis Mem Ber by Joyce Carol Oates is a highly recommended collection of seven dark, carefully crafted short stories.

Contents:
Dis mem ber: Eleven year-old Jill is captivated but a little frightened of Rowan Billiet, an older relative.
The Crawl Space: A widow keeps driving by the house she lived in for over two decades.
Heartbreak: The rivalry between two sisters intensifies when an attractive male step-cousin visits.
The Drowned Girl: A university student becomes increasingly obsessed with the drowning of another girl.
The Situations:  A father cruelly shows his children that he is the one in charge.
Great Blue Heron: A recent widow recalls watching a Great Blue Heron with her husband and begins to identify with the bird.
Welcome to Friendly Skies!: "Welcome aboard our North American Airways Boeing 878 Classic Aircraft! This is North American Airways Flight 443 to Amchitka, Alaska - Birdwatchers and Environmental Activists Special!"

All of the writing is superb in this collection of stories published in 2016. While I tentatively agree that there could have been more stories added to this collection, I liked the theme these stories presented, with the last story being an exception. Each of the other six stories had a psychologically vulnerable female protagonist. Each of the women (or girls) had an obsession that would result in some unexpected action, or is the result of a precarious situation. They are all in some kind of danger. The last story adds a comedic touch that also takes a dark turn.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of The Mysterious Press.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Blackout

Blackout by Marc Elsberg
Sourcebooks: 6/6/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492654414

Blackout by Marc Elsberg is a recommended novel about the power grid going out across Europe. This was originally published in Germany in 2012.

When the power grid starts to go down, station by station, Piero Manzano, a former hacker and activist, figures out what may have caused the collapse. As Manzano battles the authorities to get them to listen to him, Lauren Shannon, an American CNN camera operator/reporter follows the story. As suspicions fly and answers are not evident, the grid in the USA goes down, and the disaster is becoming worldwide. While trying to help Manzano becomes the prime suspect and ends up having to run from authorities as he still tries to find the answers.

This is not a techno-thriller as much as it is a semi-realistic scenario of what would happen if the power grids failed due to the actions of a terrorist group. In this scenario the terrorists are well educated, well connected and wealthy, which wouldn't necessarily always be the case. The important fact to take away from Blackout is that we, all countries, need to safe guard our power plants. After all, it's not just electricity at stake. No power would affect so much more, like the food supply, healthcare, communication, and the water supply. The concern over what could happen is real and Blackout does a service pointing attention to this.

While the concept of the book is chilling and could be more frightening than many nightmares in the hands of some writers, in this instance the execution of the novel doesn't quite live up to the description. Elsberg did his research, which is evident, and that definitely helps the novel and gives it an edge, but the actual presentation of the action is not quite as realistic and the plot suffers. Manzano just keeps getting out of one desperate situation after another. While it is an interesting book and did hold my attention I couldn't help but think that perhaps a nonfiction novel would have been a better choice to present all the facts.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Theft by Finding: Diaries

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company: 5/30/17
eBook review copy; 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316154727

Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris is very highly recommended collection of entries from his diaries.

This is an edited compilation selected by Sedaris of his diaries. "I’m including only a small fraction. An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive. On any given day I am all these things and more: stupid, cheerful, misanthropic, cruel, narrow-minded, open, petty - the list goes on and on." A different edit would have changed the entire book. In fact, Sedaris started out planning to just share the funny diary entries when his editor suggested that he go back to the early entries and share things that weren't as funny. He did this and it changed the book, as he then decided to eliminate many of the funny entries. The result is a compelling collection that follows Sedaris's life from a struggling drug-abusing drop out to a celebrated humorous author.

For his diary entries Sedaris notes: "What I prefer recording at the end - or, more recently, at the start - of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me." The wonderful thing about these tidbits of observation  is that they often capture societal opinions during current events of the times. For those of us who are around the same age, the entries pull you back to that time and what was happening then, as well as what you were doing.

Fans of Sedaris's writing will clearly see the inspiration for some of his stories. His wit and humor, along with the gifted way he has with words and descriptions, is here, and many will recognize  the source material for some of his stories. But while he is often hilarious, he is also honest. There are many poignant revelations and emotional situations presented along with the expected funny remarks, stories, and observations.

Theft by Finding is not to be missed. The title of the book is based on a term used in the U.K. where, if you discover something of value and keep it, it is called "theft by finding." Sedaris's acute eye and ear for actions and dialogue is clearly evident as he recorded many events and conversations that he "found" or overheard, along with the more direct conversations and encounters he experienced.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.