Monday, July 31, 2017

The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
advanced reading copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062105714

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson is a very highly recommended novel about family, aging, privilege, and the South. This incredible novel has it all - memorable, quirky characters, remarkable writing, and an outstanding plot. The Almost Sisters may be my favorite novel by Jackson to date (which is special because I have loved all her novels), and is a contender for my top ten books of the year.

Leia Birch Briggs, 38, is a successful comic book artist who was in the bar at a comics convention when she met Batman and fell hard. "Plus, tequila never was the handmaiden of good decisions. I’d asked him up to my room. We’d started kissing in the elevator..." The result is Leia is pregnant with Batman's child. All she remembers is that he is black so her child, a boy she calls Digby, will be biracial. She wants Digby despite the fact that "I’d walked away from every man I might have married. No, I’d run. The playground song in my head went: First comes love, then comes hideous betrayal, then comes endless regret requiring expensive therapy. It was a terrible song. It didn’t even rhyme. But it was mine, and I hadn’t made a family, even though I’d wanted one. I still did."

Before she has a chance to break the news to her family, her step-sister Rachel's marriage implodes on the same day her 90 year-old grandmother Birchie makes it known in some very public comments while at church that she is slipping into dementia. Leia ends up taking her 13 year-old niece, Lavender, with her as she heads to Birchie's home where she lives with her life-long friend Wattie in a small Alabama town. Leia is now faced with cleaning out the family home and finding some place safe for Birchie and Wattie to live - and they don't want to leave. She also still needs to tell her family she's expecting. But nothing is as simple as a to-do list and even more surprises and complications await her in Alabama than she could imagine.

Jackson always writes funny, quirky, unique characters that are memorable and resonate with you long after the novel is over. The Almost Sisters is no exception. I loved the characters in this novel. I love Leia, Birchie, Wattie, Lavender, Rachel, and Batman. (It helps that we do geek in my home.) I also love how Jackson portrays families here: messy and complicated, but supportive even while shaking their heads at the events that are unfolding and secrets that are revealed. And the humor throughout the novel is integrated perfectly into the characters voices and actions.

The the quality of the writing is phenomenal and the pacing is perfect. I was caught up in the narrative from beginning to end and enjoyed every turn and new revelation that came along. Jackson has an understanding, empathetic way of handling some serious issues, including aging grandparents, blended families, contentions between sisters, the existence of privilege, and racism. She does it so gracefully, with humor and insight, that you won't realize at first how skillfully she has covered some serious topics.

I agree with the Kirkus review that said The Almost Sisters is "A satisfying, entertaining read from an admired writer who deserves to be a household name."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Clockwork Dynasty

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson
Penguin Random House: 8/1/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385541787

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson is a highly recommended blended steampunk/sci-fi thriller exposing the secret history of the avtomat, or automats/robots, living among us. A secret race of robots has been living alongside humans for centuries. The Clockwork Dynasty tells the past and present story of these beings through two timelines, the present day and in 1725 Russia.

June Stefanov is an anthropologist who specializes in ancient technology and she travels the world for her employer, the Kunlun Foundation, looking for rare antique automatons. She wears an old artifact around her neck that she inherited from her grandfather. The artifact is reminiscent of an intricate clockwork assembly and her grandfather told her to keep its existence secret. When she figures out how to activate a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll, she is told the "wolves" are coming for her. She is rescued by Peter Alexeyvich, a robot, from certain death at the mechanical hands of Talus Silferström. Talus serves the avtomat called Leizu, the Worm Mother, who also seeks to kill Peter. Now the two are on the run together as June learns about the secret robots that live among us.

Peter's history begins in 1725 Moscow where Giacomo Favorini, the last mechanic of Czar Peter the Great, brings Pyotr/Peter Alexeyvich to life along with his sister Elena Petrova. Peter resembles a tall man, while Elena looks like a girl of around 12. Circumstances force them to flee Russia (when we are introduced to Talus) and travel to London where they struggle to blend into the world of humans. Peter becomes a soldier of fortune while Elena chaffs under the requirement that she stay hidden from humans - and Leizu.

Chapters alternate between Peter's story set in the past and the present day with June. I'm not convinced that the alternating chapters worked well here. It might have been good to develop June's character more while condensing the backstory of Peter and Elena. Currently June is undeveloped for a main character; however the novel is certainly set up for a continuation of the story so perhaps the next book will give us more insight into June and her amazing mechanical skills.

The writing is very good and there is a lot of fast-paced action to keep both stories moving along quickly.  The battles all seem to have a violent, Terminator feel to them and, admittedly, sometimes it became just a bit too violent for me. It is an entertaining novel that shows an influence from other stories/movies, but still should please fans of robot/steampunk fiction.

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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

See What I Have Done

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Grove Atlantic: 8/1/17
eBook review copy; 324 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802126597

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is a recommended retelling of the story of Lizzie Borden during a limited time span.

On the morning of August 4, 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally murdered in their home located in Fall River, Massachusetts. This historical fiction novel retells that story through four different characters: Lizzie Borden; Bridget, the housemaid; Emma Borden, the older sister; and Benjamin, an acquaintance of the sisters’ maternal uncle, John Morse. Schmidt tells a story that highlights what the respectable Borden household was really like. Andrew was abusive and had an explosive temper. Abby, Andrew's second wife and stepmother to the girls, was a needy, spiteful woman. Emma wants to escape from the household and live an artistic life. Lizzie is portrayed as child-like, unreliable, clinging, angry, and manipulative. Bridget sees all and wants to leave but Abby has recently taken her tin with all her savings inside it. Benjamin is a violent thug and unpredictable.

The novel attempts to bring to life these characters and the events surrounding the murders. Lizzie is depicted as so child-like and, well, odd, that you will wonder if she was mentally unstable. You may also be wondering this about Andrew and Abby. Bridget is trapped in a household she wants to leave. The same could be said of Emma. She wants out but is stopped at every attempt.
The murders are more just discovering the bodies and the reactions to the state they were in rather than extended gruesome descriptions.

The writing is very good and Schmidt succeeds in creating a tension-filled atmosphere in the novel making it a psychological historical thriller. Each character has an individual voice and you will know who is talking in the chapter. I will have to admit that I didn't necessarily find this a compelling or insightful novel. Schmidt has chosen in this account to focus on what happened the day before and the day of the murders rather than Lizzie's subsequent arrest, trial, and acquittal. It takes the focus of See What I Have Done and places it on the actual dysfunctional family dynamics. It might have helped my review if Schmidt had provided an epilogue stating what was based on fact and any liberties she took for fiction. I knew what I imagine was an average amount about the historical case and actually had to look up the information. She does provide a timeline of historical events at the end of the novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

The Marriage Pact

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond
Penguin Random House: 7/25/17
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385343299

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond is a recommended novel of suspense.

Alice, a lawyer who used to be a singer in a well-known regional rock group, and Jake, a partner and therapist in a psychology practice, are newlyweds living in San Francisco who have been given an odd wedding gift that requires some explanation from the giver. Alice impulsively invited Liam Finnegan, a client who is a famous Irish musician, and his wife to her wedding. They not only attend the wedding, but he sent the gift, a special wooden box that can only be opened with a key. Inside is an offer to join The Pact, a secret group that enforces rules to keep marriages intact and partners committed for life. Jake and Alice decide to join the group, after all its goal is to keep marriages happy and intact, and sign the contract without carefully reading it or the huge manual of rules.

They are instructed to memorize the rules and are not allowed to talk about The Pact. At first it doesn't seem too bad, They are invited to glamorous parties hosted by members who live in the area, but Alice mistakenly talks about her long days at work, which gets her into trouble with The Pact, resulting in reconditioning, and monitoring. Soon it is apparent that enforcement of The Pacts rules results in greater consequences than one would expect, including incarceration and torture in a private prison. The rub is the contract is for life and there is no backing out or changing your mind.

The Marriage Pact starts off strong. The quality of the writing is good. The concept of a secret group that enforces rules to keep marriages strong and the partners committed for life is intriguing. Most of the rules make perfect sense: always answer your partner's phone calls, take a trip or vacation once every three months, give your partner a gift chosen specifically for them monthly, don't keep secrets from your partner, and, naturally, no adultery.

Soon, however, the story becomes increasingly implausible. It was difficult to believe that a lawyer and a therapist would enter into the cult-like Pact without carefully examining the contract and the rules manual. No matter how secret membership in the group is, people aren't going to passively tolerate many of the enforcement policies. You can't always ignore work expectations just because some overtime or staying late to finish up a big project is required.  Admittedly, one of my first thoughts when Pact enforcement officers broke in to take someone to the prison was it was a home invasion - first arm yourself, then call the police.  Also an organization like this is not going to be kept a secret. (Look at other cults/organizations that expect secrecy.)

In the end, I enjoyed The Marriage Pact as a pleasant diversion. The narration is through Jake's point of view, so that is how we are introduced to all the characters. Although he is a trained observer, character development is lacking. This can be overlooked because Richmond keeps the action moving along at a fast pace (or it can be read quickly). I found myself able to suspend the majority of my disbelief and scoffing at the character's reactions as I anxiously read what happened next to Alice and Jake. Great choice for an airplane book. It is an engaging book that will hold your attention but you won't cry if you lose it or misplace it.

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen
Hester Velmans (Translator)

Grand Central Publishing: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455542178

"I made the decision to give the world a little taste of the real Hendrik Groen. I hereby declare that in this diary I am going to give the world an uncensored exposé: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam." As quoted from The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, a recommended novel, highly for the right reader.

There are some funny lines: "Of the five senses, my nose still works best. Which is not always a blessing in here. It smells of old people." There are some sad, poignant moments, and some very realistic scenes, but much of the book has an optimistic feel, sort of shenanigans among the elderly, even as the people around him struggle with their health and other issues. Along with the retelling of the daily events, there is commentary about care for the elderly.

Henry has his list of complaints and topics he discusses with his doctor, but he is still alive so he has decided to write a dairy exposing all the daily occurrences and happenings at the retirement home where he lives with an assortment of other "inmates." He discusses (quite a bit) his dribbles and move to wearing an adult diaper, the outings of the Old-But-Not-Dead Club, his mobility scooter, his friends amputations due to diabetes, another friends worsening dementia, and the on-going questioning of the director about the policies of the home.

It is written in the diary format, so the plot is the daily events in the care home as seen through Hendrik's musings, thoughts, or stories. Although it is being compared to A Man Called Ove, the comparison didn't hold up for me. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not as well written. While I initially enjoyed it, I soon tired of the format along with the novel. Additionally, serious health problems and facing death can also come to those who are much younger than these residents. (I will concede that perhaps this wasn't a good week for me to read this one. I don't regret reading it, but I was glad when it was over.)

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


Spire by Fiona Snyckers
Clockwork Books: 3/23/17
eBook review copy; 262 pages
ISBN-13: 9780620753449

Spire by Fiona Snyckers is a recommended thriller set in Antarctica.

Dr. Caroline Burchell is a surgeon and virologist who has been chosen to join the team of SPIRE and spend the winter in Antarctica doing research. SPIRE stands for the South Pole International Research Establishment. Caroline has brought vials of cryogenically frozen viruses that she plans to study over the 8-9 months she will be there. Before she can even begin her research though, the whole team there is coming down with a wide ranging number of diseases that are represented in her vials. The only problem is that the seals on her vials are all still intact which means someone else has brought the same deadly diseases to the station and released them. Soon Caroline is the only survivor with no hope of rescue in sight; however soon mysterious occurrences in the station make her suspect that there may be another survivor hiding from her.

The set up to Spire is intriguing as I am always up for virus-outbreak stories. Then it changed into potentially an exciting lone-woman-against-the-elements story. For a brief, shining moment I thought it was going to be sort of a twist on The Martian, or Endurance, only with a female doctor trapped at an Antarctica research station, but it soon lost some of its initial momentum and morphed into something else. The quality of the writing is adequate, no glaring problems and written in a simple, easy to follow style reminiscent of a YA novel.

Once the story changed, it lost its energy. The viruses were introduced to eliminate everyone and add a twist that was, quite frankly, not very believable. Add to this Caroline's finding a cat at the station, and her ability to use the internet, contact people, including colleagues and her family, Skype, etc., made the disorienting sense of isolation and solitude vanish. The horrible sense of isolation and potential for death, etc., was really only fully utilized during one part of the plot. FYI, it's also not a very tech-savvy novel for those of you who care about such things.

Now, it is still an interesting story. It was easy to set all my misgivings aside and just enjoy the novel as is. Don't expect any great use of the viruses, though, beyond a plot element to isolate Caroline. This is an airplane book. It will hold your attention and help pass the time but you won't worry if you never finish it. Apparently it is a sequel to the novel Now Following You, but you won't need to read that before

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Clockwork Books.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Last Breath

Last Breath by Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062742155

Last Breath by Karin Slaughter is a very highly recommended short novel that is a prequel to her upcoming novel, The Good Daughter. It also stands alone as an excellent story.

Charlie Quinn is a lawyer visiting a group of Girl Scouts for career night when she suddenly feels ill and runs to the bathroom where fifteen year-old honor student Flora Faulkner assists her. Afterwards, Flora asks for Charlie's help to become an emancipated minor. It seems that Flora's grandparents are spending all her trust money on themselves and there won't be anything left for Flora to attend college. How could Charlie refuse to help a girl who lost her mother, just as Charlie did. Soon it is clear that the case is much more complicated than it originally appeared.

What a wonderfully written, outstanding twisty tale. Charlie is a great character and Slaughter proves how accomplished she is at character development and setting the location, and doing so in an abbreviated number of pages. It was a pleasure to read Last Breath and only makes me more anxious to read The Good Daughter (released on 8/8/17). This prequel is set thirteen years before events in
The Good Daughter.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Witness Impulse.


Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0544947306

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn is a recommended murder mystery set in an agrarian post-apocalyptic society.

The world collapsed decades earlier and survivors of California have regressed into small towns along the Coast Road where enclaves of people are organized into households. The new society controls population growth and has strict guidelines that must be followed for farming the land. If a household proves that can take care of themselves they may be awarded a banner. The banner represents a child that the household can have because having children is a privilege in this society.

Bannerless follows two different stories set in two different timelines. Both feature Enid, either as a twenty-seven-year-old investigator or when she was a teen. In the present day Enid is an Investigator. She and Tomas, another Investigator, have to travel from their home in Haven to Pasadan in order to investigate the possible murder of a man named Sero. This is Enid's first murder case and she is determined to do a good job at discovering what really happened. In the end her investigation leads to even more questions about what happened and why it occurred. In the timeline from the past a teenage Enid travels with Dak, an itinerant musician who travels up and down the Coast Road, singing and playing his guitar.

The plot is set far enough in the future that details about the collapse aren't really well known. The narrative is interesting, but the world building feels like it is lacking.  The focus is really more on small, limited aspects of this new society and the investigation. The Investigators carry notebooks, which seemed very odd and felt out of place to me. There are also some things from the past that they have carried into the future, like intradermal birth control implants and some solar powered cars around, that just felt like anomalies.

The travels of teenage Enid actually detract from the story rather than explain her current choices or aspects of her personality. It might have been better to just briefly explain how she knew Dak from the past rather than spend so much time on their travels. It didn't add to the story.

While I liked this novel, I didn't love it as much as I thought I would. This is a quick read, perfect for escapism or a beach read. You won't need to concentrate on the story in order to follow it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bring Her Home

Bring Her Home by David Bell
Penguin Publishing Group: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399584442

Bring Her Home by David Bell is a recommended thriller, highly for the right reader.

Bill Price's fifteen-year-old daughter, Summer, and her best friend Haley, have been found dumped in a park after they had disappeared days earlier. Haley is declared dead at the scene while Summer is in the hospital with severe life threatening injuries. This is just a year and a half after his wife and her mother died, so Bill is over-the-top distraught. As he talks to detectives at the hospital about Summer, hoping they can find out who did this, he is waiting to see if his daughter regains consciousness. Bill is a man on the edge.

This is a well-written novel told in quick, short chapters. The narrative is told from Bill's point-of-view. Bell provides several twists in Bring Her Home, but most of them were predictable and I didn't find myself surprised by any of them. Let me just say the plot twists are all ripped-from-the-headlines reveals and not entirely believable. I was still interested in the story, but I had guessed correctly what was going to happen at every turn. There was no suspense here for me. It is entertaining, though, and would make a good vacation read, especially with the short chapters and quick pace. I did finish Bring Her Home and generally liked it.

I guess the biggest issue I had with Bring Her Home is the character of Bill. His quick temper was very off-putting because it seems he is angry, very angry, all-the-time. You also know that he wants to hit/punch/blame someone almost all-the-time. It's not only that he comes across as a rather unsympathetic, unlikable fellow (and you want to like a grieving husband and father) it's that the violence is always so close to the surface that I never felt I could trust the man's emotions. He also repeats himself again and again and again. There are also a few other problems that I had that might not bother anyone reading causally for escapism and sheer entertainment.

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

Tropic of Kansas

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
eBook review; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062563811

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown is a highly recommended dystopian/political satire set in the alternate reality of a future, fractured USA.

Sig was an illegal from the USA hiding in Canada, until he was caught and sent back over the border wall into the area that was once Minnesota. Now the Midwest is just part of a wasteland of warring factions and provincial militia groups. This area has been dubbed The Tropic of Kansas and is known for the third world lawlessness that thrives there and the various greedy leaders who control parts of it. Sig, the son of political dissidents, is a survivor and escape artist. He essentially trusts no one. He's difficult to keep as a prisoner because he will find a way to escape. He will also find a way to survive.

Tania was once Sig's foster sister. Sig's mother dropped him off at her house for Tania's mother to care for when her arrest was imminent. Tania is now a government investigator. She got into a little trouble in Washington D.C. and is now looking for Sig to rectify her mistake and to try to get her own mother free from imprisonment. When Tanis goes searching for Sig, she comes to terms with her own past and perhaps the direction of her future.

Chapters alternate between Tania and Sig. You'll be rooting for Sig as he manages to escape from one predicament, betrayal, and impressionist after another. You'll also be hoping Tania sees the light, and the corruption of the government, and finds Sig along with a new goal for herself.

Brown takes present ideological differences, technology, factions, and widely different beliefs among citizens in the USA today and escalates all of it into a dystopian setting while setting his characters into this action packed satire. It's a wild ride through politics, drones, guns, and bullies. It's also an easy to read novel, with short chapters that avoid much detailed descriptions of settings or other characters. This is entertaining - certainly a good airplane book. It is worth noting that you should anticipate that Brown will hit you over the head with pc politics along with the expectation that you will naturally believe all that he believes. But, since this is also set in an alternate reality USA, it is much easier to just go with the flow and accept any precautionary statements that might be leached out of the adventure.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Sister's Bones

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
Advanced reading copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062661968

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood is a very highly recommended psychological thriller. This is an excellent, compelling, unforgettable novel that will keep you guessing.

Kate Rafter, who has been a war correspondent for fifteen years, has returned back to the U. K. from coverage in Aleppo, Syria. While she was out of the country her beloved mother died and Kate was unable to attend her funeral thanks to her alcoholic sister, Sally, who did not contacting her in time. Now Kate has returned to her childhood home in Herne Bay, Kent, to sign some documents and view her mother's will. But after covering wars for years, Kate is also suffering from nightmares and hallucinations. She hears the cries for help and voices of those people she encountered.

Feeling under siege is not a new feeling for Kate, though, as her father was an abusive alcoholic who regularly beat her mother. As she stays in her childhood home, all the memories of abuse come rushing back along with Kate's regular visions and nightmares from the wars she has covered. But this time Kate is convinced that she is not seeing things when she hears a boy crying for his mother and sees him in her garden. She is convinced that the woman next door, an Iraqi refugee, is hiding abuse by her husband and that the boy in in danger. The woman claims, however, that she has no son and that her husband is away.

In between chapters of Kate's experiences in part one of My Sister's Bones are excerpts of a psychiatrist interviewing Kate. We know Kate has been arrested for something, possible related to her hallucinations and hearing voices, and she is being held while her mental health is evaluated. How reliable of a narrator is Kate? Is she imagining things?

Kate is a fully realized character draw with skill and depth. Yes, she is flawed and we know she is suffering from her years of war coverage, but she still inspires empathy and support while you are reading. Her sister, Sally, is an unsympathetic character who is vividly described and desperately flawed. It seems that both sisters are so damaged from their dysfunctional childhood that normalcy or recovery may not be an option.

The writing in My Sister's Bones is exceptional and the plot is compelling and clever. This novel was impossible to put down. I devoured this book almost effortlessly - the pages just flew by -  and was surprised at the twists the novel took. Ellwood has several shocking surprises that I never saw coming. She also skillfully covers domestic violence and the violence in a war-torn country, with insight and sensitivity as she draws comparisons in her narrative between the effects of both violent situations on the victims. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown
Penguin Random House Group: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989465

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown is a recommended mystery about a missing woman and the family she left behind.

A year ago Billie (Sybilla) Flanagan went on a solo hike in the wilderness and never came back. Her shattered cell phone and a boot were discovered, but a body was never found. Now the family she has left behind are looking for closure and maybe some answers. Jonathan, her husband, is close to getting a declaration of death in absentia so he can collect the life insurance on Billie. They desperately need the money. At the same time he is writing a memoir about his love for Billie and their life together. Olive, their daughter, begins to have strange visions of her mother in which Billie is still alive. Olive is seeing her in different situations where Billie is talking to her daughter, telling Olive to find her.

As the two try to come to terms with Billie's death and absence from their lives, Jonathan begins to uncover secrets from Billie's past and lies she told him. Suddenly their lives together don't seem as clear as he once though they were, and maybe Billie was having an affair. Jonathan's stories about Billie become darker. Adding to the tension is Harmony, Billie's best friend and an old friend. What does she know about Billie's past and why is she always around. And then there is a coming-of-age moment for Olive.

This is a well-written but rather slow paced novel that keeps turning the same questions over again and again, with a few new details each time and little advancement of the plot until you are well into it. Alternating between the chapters detailing Jonathan and Olive's lives are excerpts from Jonathan's memoir about Billie. The excerpts aren't quite as successful in Watch Me Disappear as they have been in other novels.

Admittedly, I didn't find any of these characters that appealing, especially Billie. She's supposed to be independent and a force unto herself while also being whimsical and unique, but I can't believe that Jonathan didn't notice some of the discrepancies in her travels along with her darker nature.  I also think that when authorities were looking into Billie's disappearance while hiking, they would have likely look into her background much more closely and talk to some of the people that later Jonathan and Olive talked to. Olive's visions were presented as supernatural at first and it might have been a better choice to leave them at that and not present an explanation that never provided any true clarification.

The ending is satisfying, but, no matter how good the writing is, for me it felt like it took too long to get there. This is a much more subtle mystery that explores how well we know family members than a tension filled drama.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Local Girl Missing

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas
HarperCollins: 7/4/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062661159

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas is a recommended mystery about the past catching up with the present.

Sophie Collier disappeared in 1997, eighteen years ago, off the old, decaying pier at Oldcliffe-on-Sea. Her body was never found, but she did leave one of her shoes behind. Her best friend Frankie Howe (now Francesca Bloom) and her brother Daniel talked to the police at the time but no one could piece together what happened and why Sophie was on the pier that night. Now a foot that survived intact covered by a shoe has washed up on shore and is thought to be Sophie's remains. Daniel calls Frankie, who is now living in London, to come back to Oldcliffe while the remains are identified and to help him try to piece together again what happened that night. He believes this will give them both closure.

Daniel arranges a rental apartment that overlooks the pier, which Frankie finds disturbing. He wants Frankie to go with him to talk to some of the people who were at the nightclub the night Sophie disappeared. Did Sophie have a fight with her boyfriend or was she meeting someone else? He is hoping that someone saw something or is willing to provide new information after all these years. 

Frankie is unsettled by the rental where it seems that someone is entering it when she is gone and she is losing sleep because a baby is crying in one of the units nightly. The rental is always cold; the fire is hard-pressed to stay lit and it is the middle of winter. Even more disturbing is that Frankie seems to be seeing Sophie's ghost and someone is leaving threatening notes at her doorstep.

The narrative alternates from Frankie's point of view in the present to Sophie's from the past, in 1997. The information in the two narratives don't always correspond to each other. The two share a big secret, but Sophie has many things she hasn't shared with Frankie, and Frankie has also kept some things secret from Sophie. It is apparent that there is more going on than we realize and that Frankie might not be the most reliable narrator.

This is a secret-laden novel where more is going on and has happened than meets the eye. The writing was good. There are some twists you will easily guess or suspect and perhaps one you won't. For a successful business woman, Frankie seems a little too easily rattled, needy, and over emotional. She's also missing the effervescent sparkling personality she is reputed to have and comes across as whiny.  Douglas gives us the creepy feeling that everyone in town knows that Frankie is back, but never makes excellent use of this feeling once she establishes it. This is a satisfying novel and the ending is good, if not totally believable. This is a good choice for a summer beach read by an old pier, especially if there are plenty of drunk twenty-somethings hanging out on it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Out in the Open

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco
Penguin Random House: 7/4/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594634369

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco is a highly recommended stark story of violence, escape, and survival. It was translated from the original Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

In this bleak novel of drought-stricken landscapes and violence, a young boy escapes, runs away, from what he feels will be death. He is pursued by a man called the bailiff and his henchmen. In order to escape he must cross an arid plan where a source of water and food is uncertain, while keeping hidden from the men who are looking for him. When the young boy meets an elderly goatherd, he is offered food and water, and eventually he understands protection as the old man tries to keep the boy safe and help him escape, traveling at night, even as the violent, evil men who are pursuing him draw closer.

In this austere narrative names and dates don't matter and one day/night blends into another. The details explaining what caused the boy to flee his family are never explained. The old man and the boy are either on the move, trying to avoid the bailiff, or tending to the most basic of needs - water, food, bodily elimination, and sleeping - for them and the donkey, dog, and goats they are traveling with. The landscape is harsh, reflecting a dystopian world, but no explanation for that state of their drought-blighted land is given. The dialogue is meager, subdued. The threat of violence is always present, lurking nearby.

In the end this novel has an almost parable-like feel to it, if you ignore the violence, based on the boy's potential to escape and not perpetuate the threatening behavior he has been exposed to his whole life. The old man exhibits the traits of an adherent to Christian principles (goatherd/shepherd), and Carrasco has some Christian imagery included in the novel. The boy is almost like a disciple of the old man, who is protecting and instructing him, in his minimalist way, on survival and, ultimately, on becoming a man.

The writing is descriptive and elegant, even as the story is violent and bleak. The climax of Out in the Open is grim and devastating, but also gives a slight measure of hope and redemption. This novel may not be a ideal choice for a general audience, but if you liked The Road and lean toward literary fiction, Out in the Open might be a fully satisfying selection.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Reason You're Alive

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick  
HarperCollins: 7/4/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062424303

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick is a very highly recommended novel about a 68 year-old opinionated Vietnam vet who unflinchingly says exactly what's on his mind in his own way.

After David Granger wraps his BMW around a tree, tests reveal a brain tumor that is subsequently removed. David blames the war and his exposure to Agent Orange for the tumor. He also strangely kept repeating a name while in recovery - Clayton Fire Bear. Fire Bear was a Native American soldier who was his nemesis. Granger is telling us about his life while writing this report, the book, and he will eventually get to what happened between him and Clayton Fire Bear, but first, during his report, we get to learn a whole lot about his life, his pride in serving his country, and his beliefs.

He loves his granddaughter, Ella. He doesn't understand or respect his ultra-PC son, Hank. He detests his Dutch daughter-in-law. He loved his wife. He likes his gay friends, Gay Timmy and Gay Johnny. His best friend is Sue, a Vietnamese American. As Granger tells us about his life, in his own way and using his own word choice that some may find offensive, actually he is surprisingly open and supportive to other people. While reading, pay attention to his actions, not his words and you'll discover that Granger is a much more well-rounded, accepting, and compassionate person than perhaps his PC son and daughter-in-law, and others of their ilk, have ever been.

Yeah, he's opinionated, but in the end I liked this old vet quite a bit. It made me think that if we paid more attention to the good in others right now instead of seeking out the worst behavior, we could bypass much of the polarization of ideological camps that is currently happening. Sure, Granger says cringe-worthy things all the time, but his friends see beyond the words and his irascible behavior, and adore the man.

The Reason You're Alive is a fast-paced, clever, engrossing story about a man's life experiences. It is extremely well-written and, in some ways, an insightful, rewarding novel. I can guarantee you that if there is an offensive way to say something, Granger will say it. You will have to keep reading past the beginning and initial impressions, look beyond what Granger says and start noticing his actions. The David Granger you will know in the end is a much more complete picture of the man you see in the beginning.  All the characters are well developed and unique individuals, but David Granger is singularly one of the most unique, honest characters I've come across in a long time.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr

The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard
Sourcebooks: 7/11/17
eBook review copy: 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492649298

The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard is a very highly recommended look into the life of a twenty-seven year-old neuro-atypical woman.

Elvira Carr lives a very restricted life with her authoritarian, overbearing mother. She does tasks for her mother in their home and she goes to the store. Elvira follows the rules. She enjoys biscuits, has amassed a lot of information about each kind, and collects the packages. She also takes what people say at face value, which can be troubling.

When her mother has a stroke and Elvira is suddenly on her own, she knows she needs to make sure she is adapting and fitting into a world she has little experience navigating through. She sets up a meal schedule. She keeps the house clean. Her neighbor Sylvia helps her follow the bus schedule to visit her mom and expand her understanding of the world. When she takes a computer class and actually buys a computer, Elvira discovers that there are groups online of people just like her who find ways to fit into the world of Normal-typical people.

This is when Elvira writes her list of seven rules that will help her move around the world without getting into trouble and perhaps even have her differences go unnoticed. Sylvia helps refine and explain areas Elvira questions. The rules help Elvira understand the world and some of the troubling questions she has about her life with her mother and father.

The seven rules are:
Rule 1: Being Polite and Respectful is always a Good Idea. Rule 2: If you Look or Sound Different, you won’t Fit In. Rule 3: Conversation doesn’t just Exchange Facts - it Conveys how you’re Feeling. Rule 4: You learn by making Mistakes. Rule 5: Not Everyone who is Nice to me is my Friend. Rule 6: It’s better to be too Diplomatic than too Honest. Rule 7: Rules change depending on the Situation and the Person you are speaking to.

The writing is quite good. The narrative has Elvira experiencing a number of challenging incidents and her reactions are realistic and sometimes heartbreaking. Elvira will have your full support and devotion as she works out a way to live among the normal-typical people and their figures of speech that can be so troubling and difficult to understand. The only minor quibble I had with it was the convenience in the plot that her mother was wealthy enough to have a trust fund set up for Elvira so she could stay in her home. It worked for a heartwarming fictional story, but was a tab-bit too fortunate and opportune in the real world.

This is a wonderful, touching, and charming, novel about a young woman, likely on the Autism spectrum (although it is never specified), and how she figures out a way to cope in the real world of normal-typical people. You can tell that author Maynard works with adults with learning disabilities as she handles her character with an insight and compassion that sets this book apart from many others. It can be favorably compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Be Frank With Me. The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr would be an excellent choice for a book club.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Part of the Silence

Part of the Silence by Debbie Howells 
Kensington: 6/27/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496706911

Part of the Silence by Debbie Howells is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Evie Sherman was found beaten and left for dead in a field. Now that she has come out of her coma, she is frantic because her three-year-old daughter, Angel, is missing and Evie knows she is in danger. When Charlotte Harrison sees the picture of Evie, she is sure she knows her, but by a different name, Jen Russell, from years ago when they were in school together. Charlotte contacts the police and, after identifying Evie as Jen, she begins working with DC Abbie Rose to try to help Evie/Jen. No other friends have come forth to identify her or confirm the existence of Angel.

To complicate things further, Evie's memory is gone with the exception of her daughter. The problem is that the police can't find any trace of her daughter existence. Because Evie has memory loss, the mystery unfolds through the point of view of Charlotte and Jack, an older police officer who enters the story later, along with diary-like entries from a girl named Casey. You get the impression almost immediately that Charlotte is likely an unreliable narrator, but she does seem to be helping in her own selfish way and Abbie Rose continues to call her for help or to visit Evie. There was a previous child who mysteriously disappeared fifteen years ago when Evie/Jen was watching her.

Excellent writing combined with unreliable characters and mysteries from the present and the past combined together to make this a compelling thriller. It's hard to figure out who is telling the truth. Although I had my suspicions early on, I thought the plot and the twists in the narrative were very well done. It's always exciting to read a well-written mystery that keeps you guessing and flows smoothly along, even when switching narrators.

The characters are well-developed in the context of the mystery and make the final twist even more surprising, but completely logical. Evie/Jen seems so muddled and fragile. Jack is a great character. Abbey Rose isn't as well developed, but you get the strong impression that there is a whole lot more she's thinking about than she reveals. Charlotte is an enigma. She seems so self-centered and a bit aimless, but she does help Evie/Jen. And why does no one else seem to know Evie/Jen or Angel?

Debbie Howells gives us another wonderful thriller with Part of the Silence. This is a great choice for a summer vacation read; it is engaging and well-written.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington Publishing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Before Everything

Before Everything by Victoria Redel
Penguin Publishing Group: 6/27/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735222571

Before Everything by Victoria Redel is a recommended novel about friendship, life changes, and loss.

The group of five self-named "Old Friends" who first met in grade school is gathering to say goodbye to Anna, a member who is dying. She has fought cancer for years and is now choosing hospice care and no more treatment. Each of the women had a close relationship with Anna, and we view their relationships through their own recollections, marked by their differences and changes across the years. Also in attendance is Reuben, her husband from whom she is separated but they are still friends, a group of women who are the new friends, the women she has been friends with on a daily basis for the past twenty years in Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, her two brothers, and her children.

Anna, was a math teacher and musician. Her old friends include: Helen, a painter; Ming, a lawyer; Caroline, the caregiver of a sister; and Molly, daughter of a cruel, abusive mother.
recovering addict Helen, now a famous, globe-trotting painter; Ming, a high-powered lawyer whose daughter has a seizure disorder; Caroline, caregiver of a perpetually needy bipolar older sister; and Molly, a lesbian, daughter of a drunken, cruel mother.  Then you have all the Valley friends, etc. It is a densely populated book where individual personalities tend to blur unless you are paying very close attention.

The story alternates between events in the present day with those from the past until everything comes together at the end. There is no great suspense involved as we know Anna is dying right away and that she is refusing any more treatment. The friends are flocking to her for themselves, in reality, because she has made her decision. That makes the book more of an exploration of past events in contrast with the current circumstances.

Although the writing is very good, realistic and descriptive while pulling on your heart strings, we actually learn very little about Anna, her inner life and feeling. We know she's an extrovert to the extreme, a bit self-centered, doesn't like to read, and only makes friends with beautiful women. Why are all these people so enamored of her? I never understood that, and it's kind of important that I do if I'm going to care about her life and death. I'll have to admit that I read to the end of this one rather quickly as I didn't care about these Old Friends and actually felt sorry for the new friends of the last twenty years who were pushed aside when they also needed to say goodbye.

In the end I wasn't quite the right target audience for this one.

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Strange Contagion

Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz
HarperCollins: 6/27/17
advanced reading copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062448934

Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz is a very highly recommended look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

Kravetz began examining what lead to the outbreak of teenage suicide in Palo Alto, CA, in 2009 and he realized that "social contagions, the ways in which others influence our lives by way of catchable thoughts, emotions, and behaviors was the only way to understand and describe  the events as they transpired." This thought is the impetus that began his exploration into the phenomenon of social contagion as a way to understand the suicides in an affluent community of concerned, aware, adults. 

Certainly, if you have lived long enough you have seen where social contagion exists. One could even argue that it is currently in full display during and after the recent election. Kravetz points out that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions all have flow, and thus "their influence spreads beyond a single person to affect many others within proximity to one another." This influence is not only limited to teenage suicide, but can span a wide variety of occurrences, including voting behavior, public health concerns, violence, and fear. He presents several examples of social contagion, including eating disorders, emotional burnout, hysteria, fear, violence,as well as suicide.

The outbreak and sudden increase of cases of bulimia is an interesting example. "Once information about bulimia started appearing in the media, the condition spread unrestrained. "This was fueled by the media and the spread of information about the eating disorder, and certainly encouraged to some extent by the unrealistic body image standards.

"[F]ear is a powerful social contagion from which no one is entirely immune." The outbreak of concerns over Satanic ritual abuse and abuse at preschools (i.e. McMartin) had all the earmarks of a social contagion. Hysteria feeds on our capacity to imagine the worst and can take "on the qualities of a social contagion, with the ability to manifest and spread over populations by way of mere suggestions."

It is interesting to note that spreading violence and the outbreak of school shootings can share the characteristics of bacterial spread. People already have to be vulnerable in order to imitate the violent actions and thoughts transmitted by the media, discussions, or knowledge. People only seek a goal, whether it is suicide, bulimia, or violent behavior, if it is already a part of their behavioral vocabulary. This would, I imagine, also include violent rioting

Kravetz does recommend that we train people to become "interpreters of the invisible who can identify warning signs of social contagions and intercept the chain before it leads to tragedy." This could include anyone in a work situation who is in the position to notice social contagions and interrupt the chain before it leads to tragedy. We all need to learn to take notice and responsibility for each other.

This provides profoundly vital information and an incredibly interesting look at a social behavior that may likely be increasing with the prevalence of social media today and how fast news of events can spread across the world. Even as we express concern over a virus or a physical threat to our health spreading worldwide, we also need to think about a social contagion doing likewise.  Kravetz includes Notes on Support services available, and an extensive list of Selected Sources in this excellent, thoughtful, highly interesting presentation on an important subject.

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

TLC Book Tour Schedule

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Netgalley Reader Spotlight

I'm featured on the Netgalley Reader Spotlight today.

It's kind of a big deal.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
Penguin Random House: 6/27/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101973950

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck is a highly recommended science fiction novel that explores the power of language; it is translated from the original Swedish.

Vanja lives in a world that has four surviving colonies from the original five. She is an information assistant living in the colony of Essre when she is sent by her company to Amatka. Once there she is supposed to survey the residents on their use of hygiene products and their need for new products and willingness to try new brands. Vanja is assigned to stay in a local house with only three other residents, Nina, Ivar, and Ulla.

Everything in this world is made of some kind of mushroom/fungus. All citizens in this weird world are required to mark and name all of their things or they will risk having the objects lose their shape and turn into a kind of sludge that must be cleaned up by a special crew. It seems that in Amatka, the citizens need to do this much more often than they do in Essre.

Amatka is also much colder than she expected and the residents seem to be monitored much more intently for any subversive activity.  Vanja is only expecting to be in Amatka for a short time before she returns to Essre, so she concentrates on doing her job. While doing so she notices that something seems a bit strange with the residents, and the truth about some mysterious events are not discussed.

This is a rather odd novel that immediately brought to mind Jeff VanderMeer's fungus-laden Ambergris novels (City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and Finch), as mushrooms seem to play an important role in Amatka too. With a translated version it's difficult to know if some of the oddness is from the translation or the writing. Certainly Tidbeck does not explain everything that is happening and some of what you will come away with is supposition based on what you think you know.

Dystopian, sure, but much more science fiction as it is set in a different world that has been colonized. The colonies seem to be based on a Soviet-style system, but other than that little is explained about how these people arrived in this world. The naming of things or writing down their names could lead to all sorts of questions about controlling our environment and the meaning behind language. This is an interesting novel, but not likely for a wide audience.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of
Penguin Random House


UNSUB by Meg Gardiner
Penguin Random House: 6/27/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101985526

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner is a very highly recommended psychological thriller/police procedural. 
An UNSUB is what the FBI calls an unknown subject.  Between 1993 and 1998 anyone who lived in the Bay Area knew about the UNSUB called the Prophet. The Prophet terrorized the area and was responsible for eleven ritualistic murders, all unsolved. Caitlin Hendrix understands the terror and harm the Prophet caused because her father, Mack Hendrix, was the lead investigator on the case. The case nearly destroyed him while tearing her family apart.
Twenty years later Caitlin is a detective on the Narcotics Task Force. When two bodies are found bearing the signature of the Prophet, the sign for Mercury on their bodies, it appears that the Prophet is back, or a copycat, and the killings are going to begin again. Caitlin asks and is reassigned to Homicide where they are hopeful that she can convince her father to share some of his knowledge and insight about the previous cases. As the body count rises along with fear and tension, the Prophet leaves horrifying videos and cryptic written clues. Soon he begins to target Caitlin.
UNSUB feature extremely well-developed characters set in a fast paced, complex, riveting plot. Gardiner takes care to set the scene and establish her characters right away; then the action takes off and the tension steadily rises. Caitlin is a compelling, well rounded character and it will be exciting to see her return in another case. (And there will be a sequel, Into the Black Nowhere.) I'll be looking forward to the next case Caitlin is assigned. 
Additionally, I was impressed with the skillful way Gardiner presented her complicated plot and the clues that needed to be deciphered in order to stop the murders and figure out who is the Prophet. The Prophet is intelligent and utterly evil, resulting in a gripping thriller with a terrifying killer. (The infamous Zodiac killer was the inspiration for the novel, so it is dark and disturbing.) But he is up against the intelligence and sheer determination of Caitlin, and she is a clever, serious adversary.
All in all, UNSUB is a perfect summer vacation thriller. This is definitely a stuck-over-night-at-the-airport book that will keep you awake and hold your complete attention - only you'll want to be in a well lite area, maybe near security.

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


CONDITION - Book One by Alec Birri
Matador Press: 1/28/17
eBook review copy; 290 pages
ISBN13: 9781785899683

CONDITION - Book One by Alec Birri is a recommended medical thriller the starts a new three part series set in a dystopian future.

"It's 1966 and RAF pilot Dan Stewart awakes from a coma following an aircraft accident into a world where nothing seems to make sense any more." He remembers the plane going down and the flames slowly spreading. He knows his hand has been severely injured and perhaps his whole body has suffered burns. When he wakes up he hears he has been in a coma for 6 months and he can't seem to remember much else. His doctor always seems to ask him the same questions and then doesn't appear to be satisfied with Dan's answers.

Soon it becomes clear that there is much more going on than Dan knows and that his thoughts might be an unreliable source. Dan can't figure out what kind of hospital he is in and why it appears that everyone has suffered burns. Dan is having hallucinations, experiencing paranoia, and apparently memory loss. Then there is the question of the red pill that his doctor is trying to get him to take again. The question is why did he choose to stop taking it before and what does the pill do?

CONDITION is well written. Admittedly the first part of this novel can be confusing until you figure out that Dan may not be the most reliable narrator and that there is more to his story than what we are learning. I figured this out rather quickly but acknowledge that all the reviewers who felt manipulated by the first part of the book are spot-on; it is written to manipulate your feelings. This same technique has been done, perhaps more successfully, in other books, but it still is used effectively here assuming the reader will keep reading. There are several twists and the reason behind Dan's confusion is cleared up later. At the end everything clicks into place for this first book in the series. 

By the end of the book you will have a better idea of what is going on and what the next two books in the series will likely be tackling.  This is definitely a set-up for the future books. Although it is called a dystopian novel, this first book is much more a medical thriller and hints at the dystopian direction the series will likely take.

The one glaring drawback is that the three short books must be read for the complete story to be revealed. Personally, it would be preferable to get the whole story is one large book versus three small volumes.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Matador Press.