Sunday, October 29, 2017

The After War

The After War by Brandon Zenner
Brandon Zenner: 6/30/17
eBook review copy; 444 pages
ISBN-13: 9780692907627

The After War by Brandon Zenner is a two part post-apocalyptic tale and military dystopian survivalist novel. It is recommended for the right reader.

It has been two years since the known world fell apart. We aren't given a whole lot of details but apparently there was a devastating world-wide war and what seems to have been a biological weaponized plague released simultaneously that wiped out most of civilization, leaving just a few hardened survivors. Brian and Steven have been safe and secure for two years in an underground bunker prepared before the war hit. Their Uncle Al, Lieutenant General Albert Driscoll, was privy to inside information and made sure the two young men and Steven’s sister, Bethany, were safe. The cousins were given specific instructions and a map by Uncle Al. They were to leave the bunker after two years, travel to get Bethany, who is secured in another bunker, and then head to Alice, the designated meeting spot.

Simon Kalispell and his dog Winston were able to survive the war and plague by staying in a cabin in British Columbia. Simon has had naturalist/wilderness survival training so he has the knowledge base to endure the two years in the wild. Simon, the son of extremely wealthy parents was sent to the cabin in a well-equipped van to ride out the two years seclusion. Now he is also heading back east to meet his parents at the family mansion.

In the first part, chapters alternate between the actions of two groups, Brian and Steve, and Simon and Winston. The novel follows their treks and travails to get to Alice. Every chapter seems to end in a cliff hanger, which did become tiring after the first few times, but this is the kind of novel that requires you to just roll with it. Part two deals with the organized groups that are remaining and fighting in this now dystopian world.

Reviewing a book like The After War requires me to set aside a few preferences. The main event and the reason you'll be reading this is for the action, narrow escapes, and grim events that will assuredly be occurring. You will have to suspend your disbelief on more than one occasion. It is obvious here that you need to be wealthy or come from a wealthy family in order to survive the end of civilization. Those of you who think this scenario is coming might want to take note and work on your investment portfolios. There isn't great character development here or keen insights into anything. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural.

However, if you choose to read this novel it will be for the action, not the character development, finely drawn plot, or incredible dialogue. Zenner definitely provides the action. This is a perfect airplane book. It will hold your attention but you won't cry if you lose it or misplace it.

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Little Secrets

Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
MIRA Books: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778331094

Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra is a highly recommended thriller.

In Colmstock, Australia, an arsonist has recently burned down the courthouse, killing a young boy who was inside. Rose Blakey is an aspiring journalist in Colmstock who just needs an opportunity to escape from the small town and make a name for herself. She's been given an ultimatum to move out of the family home by her stepfather, but she has no where to go, unless she can somehow manage to get a job writing in the city. Currently she's working as a barmaid in a local tavern where the police hang out every night.

After the fire Rose learns from Frank, one of the police officers who hang out at the bar nightly and one who has a crush on her, that someone has begun leaving porcelain dolls on the doorsteps of homes where young girls live. The dolls all bear an eerie resemblance to the young girls who receive them. Rose's younger sister, five year old Laura, had received one of the dolls, so Rose contacts the police to turn it in, in hopes that they can find the creep who is doing this.

Then Rose begins to view the doll story as  her ticket to escape Colmstock. She investigates and  writes up a version of the story to sell to a tabloid, The Star, and she gets published. Now she needs to keep updating the story in hopes of finding a way out of the small town. An exactly who is the mysterious stranger who arrived in town and why is he there?

This is a compelling thriller that will hold your attention. Snoekstra keeps the tension and paranoia high in her characters and the atmosphere unsettled and ominous as Rose investigates. When suspicions run high and the community begins to turn against her and each other, the tone of the novel becomes dark. Soon it becomes apparent that everyone has an agenda and secrets. This is a desperate town full of desperate, suspicious people.

There really aren't any likeable characters here. You may think you like of dislike a character, but will then change your mind as events unfold. There were so many different directions that the story could have been taken that I was a little disappointed in the direction Snoekstra choose. I did like the resolution to the doll story, but there were other little comments made or actions taken in the narrative that could have made for a richer, deeper experience. Still, Little Secrets is a satisfying novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books


Smile by Roddy Doyle
Penguin Publishing Group: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735224445

Smile by Roddy Doyle is a very highly recommended excellent novel about a man examining his life and the uncertainty of memory.

Victor Forde, 54, is a failed writer who is looking for a local pub that he can call his regular place. After his recent separation from his famous wife, Rachel, he has returned to his hometown and rented a cheap apartment. Now he simply wants a quiet place where he can have a slow pint at night. He's decided on Donnelly's. Then a man called Fitzpatrick shows up there, sits next to him, and immediately claims to know Victor from secondary school. Victor doesn't recall the man at all and , in fact, dislikes him on sight.

As he finds a group of regulars to sit with at Donnelly's, what Victor tries to do is avoid Fitzpatrick at all costs. The man acts like they are best friends, but, as he reviews his life, Victor seems to be afraid of what Fitzpatrick might reveal. Fitzpatrick seems to know a lot about Victor, but Victor cannot remember him at all. What Victor does is begin to reminisce on events from his past. He looks back at his life as a rock critic and political journalist. He recalls when he met Rachel and her rise to fame. He recollects the radio programs where he was invited to speak on controversial issues. But he especially begins to remember his years being taught by the brothers at St. Martin's Christian Brothers School, especially one brother.

Doyle brings all of his considerable, skillful writing ability to bear here and the result is stunning. Smile may not evoke any mirth the title implies, but this is a memorable, tenacious, and daring psychological mystery. the ending will have even the most careful reader take pause and reexamine everything they have just read. This is an exceptional novel that begs the reader to question how we recall our own memories of events that have occurred in our lives. Most of the novel is written in flashbacks.  Not much can be written about the ending, but it will shock and disturb you. Smile is nothing like any other novel by Doyle I've read, and yet it is remarkable. It also makes Smile a novel that is quite unforgettable.

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Seven Days of Us

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Penguin Random House: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451488756

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak is a dysfunctional family drama, so-so for me, but recommended for the right reader.

The Birch family is going to spend Christmas together - in quarantine. Emma and Andrew Birch will be spending seven days at Weyfield Hall, their country estate, with their two daughters. Their oldest daughter, Olivia, is a doctor who is returning from treating an epidemic in Liberia, the Haag virus. She has to stay in quarantine for a week, and so must her family if she is with them. Olivia views her family as rather superficial and foolish. Youngest daughter Phoebe is shallow, self-centered, and focused on her upcoming wedding. Andrew, a restaurant reviewer, has received an email from an illegitimate son he knew nothing about, and Emma is keeping an even bigger secret from them in hopes of having a wonderful family Christmas.

Each chapter in Seven Days of Us is written from a different character's point of view. They are short, quick chapters. This does help move a very s-l-o-w start along any quicker, but at least you get to read about what another character is thinking/doing. Everyone has a secret, but the secrets are all out and running rampant for the reader. The novel then sets up a series of unbelievable coincidences that all collide and help expose all the secrets. Did I mention that it starts out very s-l-o-w. Extremely s-l-o-w. Add to this the host of unlikable characters and it was difficult for me to make myself continue to read because it all seemed so pointless to spend that much time with characters that I didn't remotely care about.

I also had a very difficult time with the big set-up, that the family was all to be under quarantine. A quarantine for a doctor returning from working in an area with an epidemic (called the Haag virus here, think Ebola or Marburg virus for comparison purposes) does not consist of being locked up with your family for Christmas and relying on them to stay isolated and others to read the notice and stay away. Period. And the family members were all ignoring the seriousness of that premise anyway - going out, inviting people in. They sort of proved themselves to be foolish, again and again. They are, however, more caricatures than real characters, so it just comes off as farcical.

Obviously many readers liked this one more than me. There are some amusing scenes, but I never found anything "laugh-out-loud funny." The quality of the writing is good. If you like The Family Stone -type dramas this might fit the bill. The actual drama and humor is more low-key, though. It might, dare I say, make a better movie than a book because you could pick up the pace, add a bit more real humor, and make all the coincidences seem likely. (2 for me, 3 for the right audience)

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Deep Freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Life Beyond Amazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

If You Knew My Sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Genius Plague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Prometheus Books.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Relive Box and Other Stories

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of
Park Row Books

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Best Day Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Graydon House.

The Visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Good Me Bad Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books.

George and Lizzie

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

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

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

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Touchstone.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Last Ballad

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

advance reading copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062313119

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

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

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

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

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

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

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