Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Innocent Wife

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd
Hanover Square Press: 3/6/18
eBook review copy: 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781335952400

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd is a so-so thriller where a lonely woman falls in love with an imprisoned killer.

Samantha (Sam), 31, is a British school teacher who became obsessed with an old true crime documentary called "Framing the Truth: The Murder of Holly Michaels." The man convicted for the murder is Dennis Danson. He was eighteen at the time of his conviction and has been on death row in Florida's Altoona Prison for twenty years. Sam frequents message boards and online sights about his case and his innocence before she takes the next step and writes to him. The two exchange letters and fall in love.

Sam, who ardently believes in his innocence, flies to to the US to meet him, fight for his freedom, and perhaps help with the new documentary being filmed about his case. Dennis proposes to her and the two are married in the prison. When his conviction is overturned and Dennis is released to a media frenzy, Sam is full of doubt and scared that she made a mistake. The couple are now living together, but share no intimacy and Dennis doesn't seem to be who she thought he was, unless it is just her own self-doubt. Adding to the mix is Carrie, the director of the first film and who is a friend of Dennis and working on the second documentary.

I'm conflicted on my feelings for this book. At first it held my attention, then it became... different. Believing that a lonely, emotionally insecure woman could write letters to and fall in love with a convicted killer is doable. Then they declare their love for each other and marry, huh, okay, but with raised eyebrows. He is then released from prison and their relationship is awkward. Well, duh, what exactly did you expect?  And you have to accept this premise because the rest of the story builds on it. The story is presented with excerpts from a biography of Danson that portrays his troubled past. Sam also shares a bit of her past, which helps explain some of her insecurities. As the story continued, it became boring and felt too contrived. I had no empathy for Sam. Finally, I felt early on that the hefty number of pages between action was daunting.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Hanover Square Press.

My Name Is Venus Black

My Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd
Random House Publishing Group: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 978039959218

My Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd is a highly recommended debut coming-of-age novel that explores the repercussions of two crimes on two siblings. This is for mature YA readers.

It is 1980 and Venus Black is thirteen and living in Everett, Washington with her mother and stepfather. She is a good kid, straight A student, and loving sister. Venus is enamored with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut. While she refuses to talk about what happened the night she killed Raymond, her stepfather, she does blame her mother, Inez, for reason why it happened. We don't learn what happened until the end of the book, but we do begin to understand that Venus wanted to protect herself and Leo, her developmentally challenged (autistic) younger brother from Raymond. While Venus is locked up awaiting trial,  her brother Leo is abducted and goes missing. Leo is seven, but looks much younger.

In 1986 at the age of nineteen Venus is released from the juvenile detention facility. Desperate to start over and try to live a normal life, she finds a job under a fake identity and tries to live a normal life in Seattle. She has no contact with her mother and Leo was never found. While Venus is trying to make a new life for herself, her past catches up with her and she realizes that she needs to face her past, talk to Inez, and try to find Leo.

The narrative follows Venus and what happens to Leo in alternating chapters in corresponding timelines. Both characters are treated with understanding, insight, and compassion. Leo's story line is particularly well-handled, considering the limitations the autism places on his ability to communicate with those around him. Lloyd has populated her novel with complicated well-developed characters, and handled them with empathy and compassion. There is a message about love, what constitutes a family, forgiveness, and the gray areas that can exist in determining what is right and wrong based on a legal foundation versus a humanitarian/emotional reaction.

While the plot moves along quickly and the narrative is very compelling, the actual writing is basically pretty simplistic. It is a YA novel, but that shouldn't mean you need to eliminate all complex sentences or language. I was caught up in the story, however, and concede it is YA so I just went with the straightforward plot and the predictability of the end. I did have to suspend disbelief in a couple cases, one major enough to cause an eye rolling moment. Still, this ends up being a feel-good, heartwarming novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House Publishing Group via Netgalley.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko, Tucker Carrington
PublicAffairs: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 978161039691

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington is a highly recommended account of the corrupt criminal justice system in Mississippi in the 1970s into the 1990s.

This book tells the story of a doctor and a dentist, two of the most audacious and arrogant experts ever allowed in a courtroom.  The focus is on collusion of the medical experts with the legal system in Mississippi. Towards that end, the trials of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks are examples of the ineptitude of the status quo. Both men were wrongly convicted of the sexual assault and murder of two three-year-old girls in rural Mississippi in the 1990s. (The two men were exonerated in 2007.) For over two decades the doctor and the dentist had built a career on providing "expert" testimony for prosecutors in Mississippi.

Steven Hayne was the controversial medical examiner who  bragged of performing over two thousand autopsies in a single year. His notes were vague enough (and not always correct) that he could often assess the atmosphere at the trial and then tailor his testimony to fit what he was observing. Michael West was a dentist who, with no formal training or peer reviewed studies, "assumed the role of an expert in many other fields, such as ballistics, gunshot reconstruction, 'tool mark' patterns, and the analysis not only of teeth and bite marks but wound patterns, bruises, and fingernail scratches." These two testified at numerous trials throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. The questionable autopsies of Hayne will frustrate you (he once wrote in his notes that he removed the uterus and ovaries from a male), but the junk forensic science of West is going to infuriate you. The blatant sexism and racism is also distressing.

"As you turn the pages, you will often be tempted to close this book and either laugh or cry or yell that what happened in Mississippi cannot possibly be true. But it is. It happened in plain view and with the complicity of many who were sworn to uphold the law." Reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist will truly be an exasperating, maddening experience as you will wonder why this went on for so long.

That question is answered. In the 1970s and into the 1990s the state legislature was unwilling to provide the budget for a modern-day state medical examiner’s office. Adding to this were the coroners, who were a powerful group who fought against reforms and were protective of the authority of their positions. Finally, prosecutors and law enforcement wanted solved murder cases, even though some knew there were legitimate questions about the quality of the expert testimony of the doctor and the dentist.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is an excellent well-written and researched account of the criminal incompetence that was allowed to occur for way-too-long in Mississippi. The strength of this book is also the weakness: the plethora of information, background, and history is exhaustive. Balko and Carrington have been researching and following this for years and the book is a culmination of that comprehensive coverage. The information runs the gamete between inciting anger and indignation to providing rather tiresome background of the history of coroners. The historical notes can be skipped over for those readers who are more concerned with following the prevailing absurdities of the doctor and the dentist and want to know when they finally were retired from providing "expert" testimony. The book includes extensive notes.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of PublicAffairs via Netgalley.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Classic Krakauer

Classic Krakauer by Jon Krakauer
Anchor: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 160 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525562733

Classic Krakauer by Jon Krakauer is a very highly recommended collection of nine pieces written for various publications, including The New Yorker, Outside, and Smithsonian. As Krakauer notes "Most of the short pieces I wrote during the years between Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air vanished into the crevices of time and have been forgotten. But Anchor Books has retrieved seven articles from this period, plus two more recent essays, and rescued them from oblivion with this new collection.." Personally, I recall reading several of these articles originally in the Smithsonian; they are what lead me to seek out anything written by Krakauer. 

The articles include:

Mark Foo’s Last Ride: Mark Foo was a big-wave surfer who "made no bones about his thirst for fame or his strategy for achieving it: ride the world’s biggest waves with singular audacity and do it when the cameras were rolling." His last ride was the Mavericks in northern California, a surfing location at the end of Pillar Point Harbor, where some of the world's largest waves can occur.

Living Under the Volcano: Mt. Rainier poses a serious threat to thousands of people who live in the shadow of the mountain. Geologists warn that the volcano will erupt again, but there is no way of knowing when that will happen. A serious threat is the fact that lahars (flash floods of semiliquid mud, rock, and ice) can happen spontaneously, and would roar down the mountain with  destructive speed and power.

Death and Anger on Everest: Russell Brice of a company called Himalayan Experience, or Himex, shocked climbers when on May 7, 2012, he made an announcement that, for safety reasons, he was pulling all his guides, members, and sherpas off the mountain. When a couple years later the ice bulge Brice was concerned about did break lose, starting an avalanche that killed sixteen, all whom were Nepalis working for teams. This has instigated sherpas demands for better compensation and other benefits based on the risks they take.

Descent to Mars: Located in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, just a few miles from Carlsbad Caverns, Lechuguilla Cave is a forbidding vertical shaft that you have to rappel down and then negotiate a labyrinthine of passages as you go even lower. NASA scientists are along on the expedition studying the microbes they hope to find there based on the fact that life on other planets might be microbial and would have have to derive its energy entirely from mineral sources, or eat rocks, and this kind of life could exist on earth in Lechuguilla Cave.

After the Fall: Two years after the unexpected, bizarre mountain climbing accident that killed a man, a law firm brought suit against the climbing instructor, the school, and the company that manufactured the climbing equipment (that the deceased used incorrectly) on behalf of the victim’s widow.

Gates of the Arctic: In 1980, eight and a half million acres of the Brooks Range in Alaska was set aside as the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. This park is a vast, untouched wilderness that contains no roads, trails, or campsites.

Loving Them to Death: After a young man died during wilderness therapy program, it was clear that his death was not an accident. His journal showed systematic abuse and neglect by the staff. This begs the question about oversight for these programs and the people who run them. 

Fred Beckey Is Still on the Loose: "For longer than I’ve been climbing, for longer than I’ve been alive, the most talked-about piece of writing in the sprawling literature of mountaineering has been a mysterious tome known as the Little Black Book." This book, written by Fred Becky, is rumored to be a list of the planet’s finest unclimbed mountaineering routes.

Embrace the Misery: "Lately you've found yourself wondering if the end of civilization might be at hand... [Y]our current angst should be dismissed as unwarranted paranoia. Most people in your privileged Western milieu have spent their entire lives inside a bubble of peace and prosperity, but to believe 'la dolce vita' will continue forever is delusional. Sooner or later, the party always ends. Every great civilization since antiquity has gone into decline, and you can’t really pin the blame on entropy. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the second law of thermodynamics, but in ourselves."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The Hush

The Hush by John Hart
St. Martin's Press: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 432 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 978125001230

The Hush by John Hart is a highly recommended thriller. It is also a sequel to 2009's The Last Child, although it can be read as a stand-alone novel.

Johnny Merrimon and Jack Cross are back. It's been ten years since the events from The Last Child (Johnny became a national celebrity after capturing the man responsible for murdering his sister Alyssa and their father). Johnny, now 23, is living a solitary life on the six thousand acres called Hush Arbor in North Carolina. He struggles to keep his life private, despite the fact that a book has been written about what happened when he was thirteen. Jack is now an attorney and has returned to Raven County to practice law. He and Johnny still have an unbreakable bond and connection to each other.

Johnny has been fighting a legal battle to keep the land that he inherited five years ago. Cree Freemantle, a young woman who also has a claim to the land, is challenging him legally for ownership of the property. Johnny won the initial suit, but the case has now reached the appellate court.  Johnny is land rich, but cash poor and he needs Jack to help him fight the legal battle for the property. Jack wants to help Johnny, and tries to arrange a more qualified attorney on a pro bono basis to handle the appeal. But he also senses an unseen menace and feels like there is something dark and sinister living in Hush Arbor. He also questions Johnny's ability to heal so quickly.

There is no doubt that Hart has written a very compelling novel in The Hush. The quality of the writing is excellent. The setting is described picture-perfect, creating an atmospheric setting for what soon heads down the path of magic realism and a supernatural presence.  It does start out rather slow, but soon events take off, violently. There is some shifting back and forth in time in the narrative as characters connect to others who lived in the past. "There is no normal in the Hush. There is only story and magic."

I haven't read The Last Child, although I'd like to after reading The Hush. While it is true that this novel can be enjoyed without reading the previous novel, in some ways I feel like I would have enjoyed The Last Child more than The Hush. Once the novel headed down the magic supernatural dark forces path along with the tie-in to events that happened in the 1850's, I began to question why I was reading it. Still, it is a satisfying story and well written, which matters a great deal to me. I didn't particularly like the ending, but it does bring the story to a conclusion. 3.5 rounded up

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern
HarperCollins: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062678966

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern is a very highly recommended novel about second chances and family. It surprised me how much I loved this gracefully written contemporary, charming novel with its distinctive characters.

Kit is the reference librarian at the Carnegie Library (called the "Robbers" Library based on the name of a local tycoon, Robers, who promoted it) in Riverton, NH. Kit has moved here four years ago to escape her past and wants nothing more than a peaceful, quiet, secluded life that revolves around working at the library. She often thinks of her therapist, Dr. Bondi, and what he has said to her in the past and would currently say about situations.

Sunny (Solstice) is an fifteen-year-old who is arrested for shoplifting a dictionary. She is sentenced to community service at the library for the summer. Sunny is un-schooled and the only child of her living-off-the-grid hippy parents. Her community service at the library opens up a new world to her and she eagerly attaches herself to Kit.

Rusty is a former Wall Street investor who lost his job. He has come to Riverton looking for an old bank account that belonged to his mom and should be worth some money now. He is at the library everyday using the computer to do research.  Rusty eventually joins the group of four retired men who come to the library every morning to read the papers and drink coffee. He also begins to connect with Kit and Sunny.

These three unique individuals begin to form an uneasy friendship and connection as their stories are slowly told through alternating chapters. Kit's story is more complicated than the others and the larger backstory that begs to be told after the opening chapter. Sunny's story is based more on her parent's decisions and how they have impacted her life. Rusty is, obliviously, trying to find a new direction to his life after he lost his previous job.

Halpern has made all these characters appealing and compelling. I liked the narrative switching between the character's stories and found them equally compelling. I wanted to know what happened to them and see healing for them in the future. I loved the empathy given to the life of all these characters and the insight into their situations. I also loved the grace they gave each other, as they tried to understand and help each other. These are beautifully captured characters. (I saved quotes that I won't share due to spoilers, but there was so much insight and wisdom in them.)

The plot starts out at an even pace covering the background of the characters (but not Kit's entire story until later) before picking up the drama. The biggest complement I can give  is that I was looking forward to sitting down and reading it and felt happy and satisfied when the novel concluded. While there was drama and conflicts, in the end this novel that left me feeling happy that recovery from traumatic events can happen and family can be chosen. And I loved the sheer love of reading and books that permeates the novel, along with the line of poetry from a notable poet that opens each chapter.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Last Seen

Last Seen by Rick Mofina
MIRA Books: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 544 pages
ISBN-14: 9780778310990

Last Seen by Rick Mofina is a highly recommended police procedural where everyone character and motives are in question and there is no clear suspect.

Cal and Faith Hudson have taken their nine-year-old son, Gage, to the carnival where Gage is determined to go through The Chambers of Dread. Gage and his friends have all dared each other to go through the horror house, so he is excited. As the family goes through the horror house, they get separated at the end and all exit individually - but Gage doesn't come out. Cal and Faith immediately start looking for Gage and ask the carnival ride manager to help. Finally, with Gage nowhere in sight, they call the police and the search begins in earnest to find the missing child.

But, along with the look into the carnival employees, and other directions, the investigation also begins to look in earnest at Cal and Faith. As with most families, there are buried secrets in the Hudson's marriage. Additionally, Cal is a crime reported for a large Chicago newspaper, which begs the question did someone Cal write about launch into a vendetta against him, targeting his son? And who is the strange man
with whom Faith  seems to have a private connection. Can any family survive their secrets exposed? And can Gage be found before time runs out?

Mofina has written a tense, evenly paced procedural here where the interviews of the suspects and the parents are all presented along with the new evidence revealed and the leads detectives and the FBI follow. We know inside evidence and suspicious characters as the investigation continues. The novel follows the investigation by the day. The thing is that everyone is suspect here. Cal and Faith have secrets along with other people.

This is a perfect choice for readers who love procedurals. Mofina keeps the tension high and the pace moves quickly as more and more information is uncovered.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.


Sunburn by Laura Lippman
HarperCollins; 2/20/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062389923

Sunburn by Laura Lippman is an excellent, very highly recommended novel of psychological suspense. Written in the traditional noir style of writer James M. Cain, this novel is full of dark secrets, passion, and betrayal.

Set in 1995, Polly and Adam meet at the High-Ho tavern in Belleville, Delaware. Both claim to just be passing through when they first meet, but both find jobs at the tavern and stay. Neither Polly nor Adam is who they say they are; both have secrets and a private agenda. They are attracted to each other, but keep their distance, staying guarded and alert, but focused on the other. Fate determines they will become lovers.

Polly was on beach vacation in Fenwick, Delaware, with her husband, Gregg, and three-year-old daughter, Jani, when she walked out and left them both behind. What kind of woman leaves her husband and daughter behind? Adam knows a bit more about Polly than Gregg does. Adam has been told about her past, hired to find her, and figure out what she is doing. Both have secrets and are playing a game, but one of them is playing a long con and murder may be an option.

Superb, excellent, outstanding! Lippman's skillful writing shines in this sophisticated, twisty, satisfying noir, full of secrets, past and present, and mysteries. Sunburn is perfectly plotted and will gripe you from the beginning to the end. Readers will not know who or if they can trust any of these characters. There is betrayal, revenge, lust, and murder, but where does the truth rest?  The mystery will grip you while you try to figure out what these people are planning.

And the characters! Lippman shines in her ability to portray these characters. They are all so well-developed - nuanced, complicated, mysterious, finely layered, conflicted. Certainly Polly is an unreliable narrator and unlikable, or is she? Adam has his secrets, but does he know the truth? Can we trust what they are revealing, or do we need to seek what they aren't saying? Even the supporting cast of characters is wonderfully realized.

I enjoyed Sunburn from start to finish.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The One

The One by John Marrs
Hanover Square Press: 2/20/18
eBook review copy; 416 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781335005106

The One by John Marrs is a recommended mix of a romance and a thriller.

Match Your DNA, a dating service, has developed a DNA test that promises participants it will find The One - your perfect match, the one partner for you, the one you are genetically made for, your soul mate. Since it began ten years ago, millions of people across the world have submitted their DNA and let the computer program find their perfect match. Of course, this has also resulted in the breakup of marriages and families. It has also changed the whole concept of finding your perfect partner. Since the test finds your perfect match, with a reported 99.9% accuracy, the whole concept of dating, romance, and love has changed.

Five different people in this story have received the notification that they’ve been "Matched" and they are meeting their genetic soul mates. These five people are Mandy, Christopher, Jade, Nick, and Ellie. The novel then consists of short, fast-paced chapters sequentially jumping from one characters story to the next... and repeat. Each chapter frequently ends with a cliff-hanger. What it felt like was a soap opera. We have the over-arching theme that they have all submitted their DNA to find The One and have been matched. Then we follow their ongoing individual stories. Each story has its own drama and propagates related questions based on the match and the choices the individuals make.

The stories of each individual and their match are interesting, but not as interesting as the original concept and not exactly grist for a thriller.
Quite frankly, many of the individual stories shambled along and were basically predictable. There were few surprises. None of the couple's stories intersect, so readers can jump ahead freely.  There are a few intriguing questions, such as does a DNA match with your soul mate really mean your match is the only one for you? Is there truly no free will or personal choices in the matter. And what about having two heterosexual man matched with each other? 

The writing is good. It is a quick read. The stories all start out with various degrees of strength, and then dawdle along for the most part. I appreciated how most of the stories were concluded. The plots in the individual stories were all bit too melodramatic/soap operish for me. I was also never convinced that a DNA test (no real scientific explanation is given) could predict a soul mate. So many people liked this novel more than me I'm thinking the difference is the romance novel part. I don't read them, so I was hoping for more science fiction.
Those of you who like science fiction may want to by-pass this one since the science is incidental while the match-making melodrama is in the forefront.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Hanover Square Press

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Rending and the Nest

The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn
Bloomsbury USA; 2/20/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781632869722

The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn is a recommended addition to the post-apocalyptic genre.

"It wasn’t fire or ice. Wasn’t a virus or global warming or a meteor. Wasn’t an atomic bomb or a tsunami or a sulfurous-smelling ape. It was a Rending, a split. Ninety-five percent of the earth’s population and the vast majority of the animals, food, and goods—gone. We were left with each other and the Piles. Later, the Babies. And we were left without an explanation."

Mira lives in a society/town named Zion that was made from the remnants, the scraps, of what was left after the Rendering. Four years after the end of the world as she knew it, Mira now sorts through the piles - literally piles of things left behind - searching for useful items. When Mira's friend Lana announces her pregnancy, it is a time of hope, but when Lana gives birth to an object, and other women follow suit, Mira decides to make nests for these Babies. This helps the mothers by giving the objects a safe resting place and simultaneously allowing them to release their attachment to the objects.  When an outsider called Michael appears in Zion, he changes the dynamics of the community and lures Lana away.

The Rending and the Nest almost begs for a reread, perhaps with a reader's guide, since there is more going on under the surface, or there could be more going on under the surface, than a quick read reveals. "Rending" itself is an odd word choice. It can mean to tear violently,  divide, pull apart, split, or to distress with painful feelings, but it is also pointed out in the book that the name shares a connection with the rending, or tearing, of the curtain in the temple at the moment Jesus died. The tearing symbolized, in part (and I'm not a Biblical scholar), that God had moved out of that physical dwelling and was through with that temple and its religious system. Perhaps this rending signifies a finality with the earth and what it was before, thus the people gone and the piles of stuff left scattered about. (And, okay, I may be stretching here looking for some significance, so we'll set this aside.)

What I can say is that the world created by Schwehn is interesting, but enigmatic. We never know what happened or why. And what we do know is puzzling at times. Certainly loved ones are missed. The community of Zion gives people some sense of purpose and belonging, but there is always this conundrum in the background, seeking the ultimate answer when none is given.

It is also beautifully written, for all its inscrutability. The plot, which is slow at first, picks up the pace after a third of the way through. The characters are basically well-developed, but broken in some way. The characters reflect the prismatic nature of humans, good and bad, challenging and comforting, open and closed-off. I liked parts of the novel ravenously, and other parts not-as-much. And, while reading, I kept getting this nagging feeling that I was missing something, that some clue or hint, or monumental reveal was just beyond my grasp.

So, I liked The Rending and the Nest, but I didn't love it. On the other hand I kept thinking I needed that reading guide to uncover what I was missing, because I was sure I was missing something. The novel felt like a puzzle to me and I was missing one vital piece... I need to reread this one someday

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2/13/18
eBook review copy; 256 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780544098268

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu is a highly recommended collection of stories that are interlinked into a novel.

Camp Forevermore is a sleep-away camp for girls between the ages of nine and 11 that is located in the Pacific Northwest. In 1994 a traumatic event transformed the lives of the five girls involved. The girls, Nita, Andee, Isabel, Dina, and Siobhan, set off with a seasoned counselor on an overnight kayaking trip to a nearby island. When they make the trip in a good time, the counselor proposes they paddle on to a big island. It is on this island that the girls are faced with questions and dilemmas that will influence their adult lives.

The novel jumps back and forth in time from the fateful camp experience in 1994 to the lives of the individual girls. The individual stories cover the background of the girls and follow their lives to the present day. You can see where the camp experience altered their present day lives, sometimes in a dramatic fashion. It is also clear that time changes the memories of some of the girls. The harrowing events from 1994 made an indelible mark on all of their psyches, however, the effect the incident had on some of the girls was much more daunting than it was for others. None of them were left unchanged.

This novel really is a series of interlinked short stories. The chapters connecting it all are short parts of the progression of what happened to all of them in 1994. The longer chapters in-between are the stories of their individual lives. Essentially this changes the focus from 1994 and the group of girls at camp to adults who all experienced the camp event years ago. It is an interesting choice of focus, and each girl's story is told in a slightly different way, in a different angle, which seems appropriate considering the girls and their backgrounds are so different.

There is no doubt about Fu's talent as a writer. The novel I read was not the novel I was expecting, but I enjoyed what she gave me enormously. I became immersed in their stories as adults, while waiting to discover exactly what happened to then as children.  She writes about the girls and then women in a truthful, honest way. Yes, some of the stories and events do seem predictable, but that could be because they reflect the actual lives of women so closely.  Tragedy is often woven into formative stories and so it is here. I do wish more was said of Siobhan and  her life. I did want to know more of her thoughts as an adult since she figured so prominently in the 1994 passages.

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

A Perfect Universe

A Perfect Universe: Ten Stories by Scott O'Connor
Gallery/Scout Press: 2/13/18
eBook review copy; 256 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781507204054

A Perfect Universe: Ten Stories by Scott O'Connor is a highly recommended collection of short stories set in California. This sublimely written collection features stories that are observant of human nature and reactions, while capturing some of the heart break and absurdities that life can bring. Most of these people in these stories are ordinary souls caught in a moment of their lives as they reflect on or have an inner dialogue about their circumstances. Some of the people are at the mercy of events beyond the power of their control and must deal with the aftermath.

Hold On: A man trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building clings to the memory of the voice of the woman who read the names of the 146 people believed to be in the building and told them, "Hold On. We’re coming for you"
It Was Over So Quickly, Doug: An incident is told through the dialogue of a self-important business woman on her phone, bud in her ear, a man waiting for coffee in line behind her and a barista with an attitude.
Jane's Wife: Liz worries about the weight she has gained since Jane left.
Golden State: Claire and his mom move to California where she tries to get on The Price is Right. 
Interstellar Space:  "Meg started hearing things when she was ten."
In the Red: A man attends a required anger management class where attendees "learn to deal with our hostile emotions in a safe and responsible manner."
Flicker: An aging actor, who is occasionally recognized, must now deal with his one hit being excised.
Soldiers: A young boy meets some other children and joins their game while trying to avoid his drunken, irritable father and friends.
The Plagiarist: A young scholar points out that a novelists career was based on copying material from other sources.
Colnago Super: A  teenage bicycle thief searches for the child she babysits after he disappears.

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

Force of Nature

Force of Nature by Jane Harper
Flatiron Books: 2/6/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781250105639

Force of Nature by Jane Harper is a highly recommended thriller set in the Giralang mountain range north of Melbourne, Australia. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, from Harper's debut novel The Dry, is back. 

Five women from the BaileyTennants accountancy firm set out on the trek in the Giralang range while on a corporate wilderness retreat, but only four return.  From the start, before the team building exercise went awry, it was clear that the participants were all reluctantly participating. After all, it is one thing to work with your colleagues and another to go hiking in the cold and rain through the wilderness with them. When the women are late for the pickup time, and then finally make it out of the wilderness minus one member and different stories, it is clear that something happened.

Federal agents Aaron Falk and Carmen Cooper become involved when the missing woman, Alice Russell, turns out to be their informant in their investigation of the accounting firm and an on-going money-laundering scheme.  It is unclear if her disappearance has anything to do with their case, because Alice seems to be universally disliked for any one of a number of reasons. Adding to the mystery is the legacy left by a serial killer who murdered young women in the same area twenty years ago. He is dead, but is there a copy-cat?

I appreciate the well-developed characters and setting. The novel expertly portrays the distrust between the five women and reasons for it, including Alice's cruelty and bossy behavior in the present and the past. The women and their backgrounds are slowly revealed, along with current circumstances that influence their relationships with each other. The weather and location both add additional dimensions to the story - wet, gloomy, cold, and dark, oppressive, somewhat sinister.  There is also more insight into Falk's character for those who read The Dry, although Force of Nature can be read as a stand-alone novel.

The narrative helps propel the plot forward as it alternates between  Alice and the other women, revealing their secrets and past relationships, and Falk's thoughts and investigation. Harper's writing is just as brilliant this time and Force of Nature can also be described as engaging, extremely well-written, and finely paced novel. It's not quite as perfect as The Dry, but, then, Harper set her own bar so high with her first novel. Certainly Force of Nature is worth reading and held my rapt attention to the perfect ending. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Going Viral

Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World 
by Dahlia Schweitzer
Rutgers University Press: 3/9/18
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780813593142

Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World by Dahlia Schweitzer is a highly recommended interesting examination of pop culture - specifically why we are obsessed with outbreak narratives and the influence this has on our culture.

There is no doubt about the fact that we fear viruses. Simply a mention of Ebola in the news and public panic rises. Simultaneously, we are also obsessed with postapocalyptic stories, dystopian narratives, and, well, zombies. Going Viral endeavors to come to an understanding about why we fear the things we do, and how our base fears are fed by film and television.  "The outbreak narrative has become a parable for our fears, evolving to depict our horrors of contagion, of the world, of monsters, and of becoming monsters. It is a template that adapts with changing cultural and social anxieties, as well as a guidepost that tells us where we are going and where we have been."

As a long time book reviewer I know that novels featuring viruses and/or zombies have become prolific in the last several years and doubtless this is due to an increasing clamor for these stories. Schweitzer looks at news sources writing stories about the latest outbreak of H1N1, or SARS, or Marburg, or Ebola - the list can go on - and how these stories play on our fears, passing along correct and incorrect information. Add to the fray TV shows and movies that feature our feared scenarios (28 Days Later, 24, The Walking Dead, I Am Legend, The X Files, World War Z, etc.) and it appears that we are anxious and obsessed. Schweitzer ultimately raises the question about who profits from the fear and paranoia.

Chapter 1 deals with the outbreak narrative in films. Chapter 2 is about the globalization of the outbreak scenario, the porousness of national boundaries, and fears of government conspiracies and/or mismanagement. Chapter 3 looks at how our fears of terrorism and corporate greed influence plots. Chapter 4 covers the postapocalyptic stories, where populations have been decimated due to factors like a pandemic disease, etc. This is where the zombies come in. Going Viral  includes chapter notes and an index.

Basically this is a scholarly examination of a current pop culture trend and the reasons behind it. It is also a class that Schweitzer teaches. (Check out the syllabus at Rutgers University Press.) While occasionally veering into the political, where her views are clearly stated, this is an interesting examination of why we are so obsessed with viral outbreaks, zombies, and the end of the world. Admittedly, I will no longer accept review copies of books featuring zombies without a long careful examination of why that new book would be unique and worth my time, however, I do enjoy a good post-apocalyptic dystopian end of civilization novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Rutgers University Press.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
HarperCollins Publishers: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062319784

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara is a very highly recommended true crime account of the serial rapist and killer who was responsible for fifty sexual assaults and at least ten murders in California during the 1970s and '80s.

Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com. She started writing about the predator she called "The Golden State Killer" in 2011. At that time DNA testing had already linked the cases to one unknown man. The man began as a serial rapist in the 1970s before changing his M.O. and began murdering couples. McNamara was determined to sift through the thousands of pieces of evidence from over fifty-five crime scenes to try and unmask the identity of the violent psychopath. She poured over reports interviewed victims, and actively immersed herself in the online community of true crime enthusiasts.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark offers insights into the assaults and the alarming steps the killer took in selecting his victims and raping them in their homes in Northern California. She also points out the trigger in 1979 that caused him to move his territory to the south where he escalated to attacking and killing couples. It is also a picture of the time in which the crimes were committed, which in some ways abetted his ability to elude capture by multiple police forces. With all the current ability to cross reference details, check DNA, and work simultaneously with multiple agencies and people, this psychopath may finally be caught.

Alongside the discovery of new information (or connecting the dots of existing information) about the cold cases, McNamara includes personal autobiographical information about her life. It brings a humanity to the reporting and the facts of the cases. We can see how diligently she was working through the police reports, trying to puzzle-out the killer's identity. We know she often worked late at night, while her family slept.

Tragically, Michelle McNamara passed away in her sleep at age forty-six before she could put the finishing details on the book, but the masterful work was brought to completion by her editor, a colleague, and her lead researcher. The sections that McNamara was working on are extremely well-written and highlight her daily life alongside her research and obsession with the details of the crimes and her empathy for the victims and their families. While the flow of her investigation isn't completely seamless, the sections McNamara wrote are full of compassion and a resolve to discover the truth. Hopefully the evidence she has gathered will help uncover the identity of the killer.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Great Alone

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's Press: 2/6/18
eBook review copy; 448 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780312577230

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is a very highly recommended coming of age story and portrait of a family and a time in history. 

It is 1974 when her father, Ernt Allbright, loses his job yet again, and decides he will move his family, wife, Cora, and daughter, Leni, north to the untamed wilderness of Kaneq, Alaska, where Ernt  has inherited his deceased buddy's cabin and land. Thirteen-year-old Leni is used to be uprooted and moved at her parent's whim. Her father Ernt is a former POW and according to her mother, Cora, he came home a changed man, full of anger and nightmares. Even with the violence, Cora will do anything for Ernt. Now Leni has no choice but to head north with her angry father and learn to live off the grid. All she can do is hope she will find a place to fit in and that Alaska will calm her parent's unhealthy, passionate and volatile relationship.

At first Alaska seems to be the answer to her family's dreams.  Kaneq is made up of fiercely independent, strong people who all have a before and after story. Alaska changes Leni. She falls in love with the land, the way of life, and Matthew. The community believes in bartering and they pitch in to help the Allbrights prepare during the long summer days for the harsh, unrelenting winter. As Large Marge tells them, "There's a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you." But that saying is referring to the harsh, unforgiving wild nature of the land. For Cora and Leni the real danger as winter approaches and darkness increases is Ernt. The darkness brings out his nightmares, paranoia and violence, especially toward Cora. Soon locals have to step in and find a way to keep Cora and Leni safe, but it is a tenuous solution at best.

The Great Alone is a wonderfully engaging novel and will hold your rapt attention from beginning to end. The writing is exceptional. Hannah depicts the violent effect of of Ernt's PTSD on the family and his toxic relationship with Cora, while expertly weaving into the story events from the 1970's and the attitudes from the decade. All the characters in this admirable novel, including the state of Alaska, are unique, deftly drawn and expertly developed. Leni is a wonderful character.

This is a perfect stay-up-way-too-late reading book, which makes it a wonderful choice for long winter nights (or overnight at the airport). The plot is complex and layered, like life itself. Hannah perfectly describes the essence of the relationship between mother and child, of love and loss, of sacrifice and regret. It is also an emotional novel. There was a point when I wondered where else Hannah could take us, what was left to experience, and she surpassed my expectations with this insightful and intelligent novel. This is one of the best novels I've read this year.

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


Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck
Penguin Random House: 2/6/18
eBook review copy; 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101973974

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck is a very highly recommended collection of thirteen short stories from the Swedish author.

This excellent short story collection consists of literary science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. This is Tidbeck's first full length collection of stories. The quality of the writing is exceptional in this fine collection, but, as with any short story collection, readers will like and connect to some stories more than others. While Jagannath is a quick read, I predict it will captivate your attention. You may be resolved, as I am, to reread and carefully contemplate several of the stories.

Beatrice: Franz Hiller fell in love with an airship while Anna Goldberg fell in love with a steam engine. The two end up sharing a warehouse.
Some Letters for Ove Lindström: An estranged adult daughter writes letters to her deceased father.
Miss Nyberg and I: A story of the realtionship between an artist and a small wood-like creature named Brown.
Rebecka:  Rebecka’s only friend, Sarah, cleans up after her many suicide attempts.
Herr Cederberg: Herr Cederberg builds a machine he names "Bumblebee."
Who Is Arvid Pekon?: The titular character is an operator at a governmental agency, ready to take calls, but losing himself.
Brita’s Holiday Village: A woman rents a cottage on the edge of Aunt Brita’s holiday village, in the area reserved for relatives.
Reindeer Mountain: Sisters and rivals, Cilla and Sara, return with their mother to their ancestral home located by the Vittra, strange elflike beings who may be their ancestors.
Cloudberry Jam: A child is made/created in a tin can.
Pyret: A research paper on small mysterious creatures call  Pyret, Swedish for "the little tyke," who live in the countryside.
Augusta Prima: Augusta is invited to play a croquet game in Mnemosyne’s court in a timeless, horrifying dream-like world.
Aunts: In the same horrific world as the previous story, where "time is a weak and occasional phenomenon. Unless someone claims time to pass, it might not, or does so only partly; events curl in on themselves to form spirals and circles." 
Jagannath: A society of symbiotes are born and live inside their "mother."

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

The Gone World

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/6/18
eBook review copy: 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399167508

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch is a highly recommended, intricately plotted science fiction/crime novel.

In 1997 Shannon Moss is a federal agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, NCIS, who is assigned to find the missing teenage daughter of a murdered Navy SEAL's family from southwestern Pennsylvania. When it is discovered that the murder has ties to personnel from U.S.S. Libra, a ship assumed lost during a top-secret space mission years ago, Shannon is sure that something the survivors encountered triggered the murder. She  knows the mental-trauma of time travel since  Shannon is an investigator that explores space and the future looking for clues to solve her cases. They are ever concerned about the ever-changing date of the coming Terminus, the date that signifies the end of humanity. Shannon travels ahead in time, to possible futures, seeking evidence to solve the murder case.

This genre-bending novel satisfyingly integrates a strong procedural crime investigation with a time traveling science fiction plot. The views of the potential futures of the Terminus, are all bleak, nightmarish outcomes, which add an additional horror element to the story. There are additional science fiction elements that are best experienced as you are reading rather than in a review. This one is a mind-twister, but in a good way.

The plot is complex, layered, and the timelines change, so you have to carefully follow the action and see what may happen and what changes as Shannon investigates the missing girl, which leads, in part, to her uncovering a terrorist conspiracy of huge proportions. The suspense builds as the complexity increases. There is an ever-present feeling of fear, that a threat is just around the corner. The characters are all well-developed and presented as individuals.

The Gone World features smart, excellent writing.  Sweterlitsch creates a dark, moody noir feeling in the bleak crime investigation. I appreciate that the crime investigation was an essential part of the story and the sci-fi elements didn't overtake it. There were a couple minor issues with it that prevented me from going with my top rating. One was the ending, which I didn't personally like. The others could be potential spoilers.

Finally, the good news is that The Gone World is being made into a movie. This is one of those stories that will likely translate well into a movie and may be easier for everyone to follow along all the timelines in the action.

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

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Look for Me

Look for Me by Lisa Gardner
Penguin Random House: 2/6/18
eBook review copy; 400 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781524742058
D.D. Warren series #9

Look for Me by Lisa Gardner is a highly recommended procedural featuring Boston's Detective D.D. Warren and victim's advocate/vigilante Flora Dane.

D.D. Warren is called to the crime scene where a family is found murdered and the oldest daughter is missing. Charlie Boyd, Juanita Baez, and her children, 13-year-old Lola, and 9-year-old Manny, are all dead, shot in their home. Missing is 16-year-old Roxanna Baez and the family's two elderly dogs. It is unknown if Roxanna was abducted, is missing, or the perpetrator. Warren and her team have to try and find the missing girl while unraveling what happened to the family.

Flora Dane, the kidnapped woman who survived over a year of torture and rape, has made a new life for herself helping other victims (Find Her, 2016). She now runs a support group to help empower other women who have endured trauma at the hands of a violent criminal. Roxanna had been in contact with her group before the murders. Now Flora is also looking for the girl, which puts her into an uneasy alliance with Warren. 

As the investigation unfolds information comes out that Juanita wasn't always the ideal mother and her children had been in the foster care system for a year while she cleaned up her act. The girls were eventually reunited with their mother, but they were changed. Flora suspects that something happened to them when they were in the system. These suspicions are confirmed in the multiple parts of Roxanna's school essay titled "The Perfect Family" that interspersed in the novel. They reveal part of what Roxanna and Lola went through in the system and at the foster home of Mother Del. These essays add a depth and intensity to the novel.

Look for Me is a very well written, gripping novel of suspense. The plot is well-paced, which keeps the investigation moving along briskly while the tension slowly rises. Like many readers, I appreciate the research and details that Gardner adds to her novels that provide additional insight in to the characters and make the subject matter feel timely. While savvy readers will likely figure out who done it rather early, that shouldn't lessen the enjoyment of this novel.  It certainly didn't for me.

Although this is part of an ongoing series, you can read Look for Me as a stand-alone novel as character background is explained along with the uneasy relationship between D.D. and Flora. They are both established characters, but there is enough personal information shared to continue the character development while following the investigation. I enjoyed the interaction between the two this time and look forward to seeing them work together in the future.

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