Saturday, September 30, 2017

Manhattan Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Man from the Train

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Blackbird Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

White Horses

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Open Road Media

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lightning Men

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria.

Keep Her Safe

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

Keep Her Safe by Sophie Hannah is a recommended thriller. 

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Bad Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unshakeable Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of FaithWords.

The Names of Dead Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Good Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour schedule

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Unquiet Grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Salt Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill 
HarperCollins: 9/5/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062405838

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill is a highly recommended post-apocalyptic robot western.
"The one truth you need to know about the end of a machine is that the closer they are to death, the more they act like people. And you could never trust people."

Human kind is now extinct and robots rule the world. Most of the world is controlled by VIRGIL and CISSUS, the two competing hive-minded OWIs (or One World Intelligence).  The OWIs are huge mainframes where the memory of millions of robots has been uploaded, leaving behind thoughtless faucets who do the bidding of the OWI who controls them - and also controls the manufacturing of replacement parts. Not all robots are willing to cede their individuality. Those who don't allow their memory to be downloaded are outcasts, rogues, who  mostly wander the Sea of Rust, looking for parts.

The Sea of Rust is a two-hundred-mile stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio. This is where the first strike happened during the war, It is where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Now it is nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. A caregiver robot who goes by the name Brittle is a scavenger robot who wanders in the Sea of Rust, trying to keep her body and mind functional. Brittle is the narrator of the story.

The engaging plot, when in the present, is all fast-paced action and close calls. However, in-between the action scenes, are chapters detailing the history of the robots and what lead up to the war with humans. While the necessity of the history becomes clear, these chapters also slow down the pace of the novel. The action scenes are cinematic, tense, and action-packed - then time for a history lesson. I'm unsure if this important background information would have been less distracting to me if it was shared in a couple chapters of backstory or in one section of the novel and then back to the action. Or maybe open with a nameless narrator telling us about what lead to the war and the extension of humans. (I could hear a narrator giving us the background in a movie version of this.) It seems, after the fact, that I would have liked that better. Also I'm unsure about robots identifying with a gender. Brittle is female, Mercer is male. Uh, they are robots - why do they need a gender or even hold onto that concept with no humans around?

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

An Odyssey

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
Penguin Random House: 9/12/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385350594

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn is a very highly recommended memoir of a father, son, and The Odyssey.

Jay Mendelsohn, a retired research scientist, decided to take the undergraduate  seminar on Homer's Odyssey that his son Daniel teaches at Bard College. It was Jay's hope that this would enable him to understand the classic epic, as well as why his son has devoted his life's work to the classics. What follows is not only insights into Odysseus and the epic poem, but also the relationship between father and son.

The two study together in Daniel's class where Jay challenges his son's interpretations. He questions why Odysseus is even considered a hero, after all, Odysseus is a liar, cheats on his wife, often cries, gets his men killed, and often needs the gods to intervene and rescue him. Teaching his seminar with his father questioning him actually encourages Daniel to justify his interpretations of the text as he teaches it. Additionally, Jay and Daniel  take an educational Mediterranean cruise together that attempts to re-create the journey of Odysseus.

This is an exquisitely written memoir. It is an insightful, extraordinary, emotional examination of The Odyssey and the relationship between father and son. Daniels uses the epic to highlight lessons he is learning in real life with his father. Their studies and trip uncover secrets that allow Daniel to understand Jay and their relationship. So while this is a memoir and a study of The Odyssey, it also represents other father-son relationships and the journeys life has taken them through. Daniel blends literary analysis with personal family history and creates a powerful work that is an enduring tribute to both Jay Mendelsohn and The Odyssey.

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

The Best of Us

The Best of Us by Joyce Maynard
Bloomsbury USA: 9/5/17
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9781635570342

"Not until we learned of his illness, and we walked the path of that terrible struggle together, did I understand what it meant to be a couple - to be a true partner and to have one. I only learned the full meaning of marriage as mine was drawing to a close. I discovered what love was as mine departed the world."

The Best of Us by Joyce Maynard is a highly recommended memoir of the author finding true love in her late fifties and then losing her beloved.

In her late fifties and after two decades of being single, Maynard begins this honest memoir stating that she was done with love and marriage. Then she met Jim on Match(dot)com and quickly changed her mind. The first part of her account is a detailed, open examination of her life and failings. She is quite open with her poor life choices and the fall-out from some of those decisions. Jim accepted her as she was and gave her the support she didn't even realize she needed. After they married it seemed that she finally had the love and a true partner for the rest of her life.

Then, just after their first anniversary, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and their dreams changed. For the next nineteen months they battled his illness together, including frequent hospital visits,  surgeries, and medication. Even as the narrative becomes increasingly painful and difficult to read, it also moves closer to acceptance of the inevitable heart-break end. Maynard celebrates her once-in-a-lifetime love and the heart-wrenching experience of losing him.

This is certainly a worth-while, well-written memoir. Maynard is extremely open and honest with her life and the choices and mistakes she has made. Some of these choices were rather impulsive and made without much forethought or consideration of the outcome or wisdom of her actions. The fact that she has openly written about some of these events indicts that she chose to do so despite the fact that they may reflect on how individual readers react to her. (It should be noted that Jim and Joyce were in a much better financial situation than many who face similar trials.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury USA.

The Han Agent

The Han Agent by Amy Rogers
ScienceThrillers: 9/3/17
eBook review copy; 260 pages
ISBN-13: 9781940419152

The Han Agent by Amy Rogers is a so-so medical thriller.

In the 1930's Japanese scientists began experimenting with biological weapons, but the program was forced to end due to WWII and all notes and evidence of the experimentation was hidden away.  Jumping to the present, Japanese-American scientist Amika Nakamura is an ambitious young virologist working at U.C., Berkeley who defies a ban on genetic manipulation of the 1918 influenza virus. She publishes a paper on her work and is subsequently expelled, fired, and banned from working at any U.C. school. She accepts a position with Koga, a pharmaceutical company in Tokyo. Her younger brother Shuu also works for Koga. She travels to the Senkaku Islands, near the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago and quickly Amika and Shuu are entangled in a high-profile geopolitical struggle between Japan and China.

Those of you who follow my reviews know I enjoy thrillers involving viruses, plagues, dystopian scenarios, etc. The Han Agent was seemingly a perfect fit for  my preferred genres. What I never envisioned was being bored and having to force myself to finish a book featuring biological weapons.  After an intriguing opening, the action in the first first half of the book slows down and the hook, the biological weaponization of a virus, is set aside for political posturing.

Now, I can suspend disbelief with the best of them and roll with the action, assuming there is some action, but it is difficult to overcome sheer disdain of the main character.  Amika is arrogant, self-important, overly confident, and annoying as all heck. I rapidly grew tired of her and her whining. Add to this a predictable plot and the lack of true, thrilling action and suspense and it is hard to rally support and enthusiasm for a novel. The quality of the writing is good, however, and the narrative does reach a satisfying conclusion. I'm sure there are other readers who will enjoy this novel more than I did.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of ScienceThrillers.