Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Only Human

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
Random House Publishing Group: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399180118
Themis Files Series #3

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel is the recommended third book in the Themis series. This is not a stand-alone novel and the three book series has to be read in the order they are written.

Since this is the last book in the series, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. Basically a giant robot was found buried in pieces around the Earth. It is put together and we are trying to master the technology, when more fully operational robots are sent to Earth and begin attacking. The attack is stopped, but all the robots, including Themis, the robot that was put together here, disappear from Earth. The human crew inside Themis, Dr. Rose Franklin, linguist Vincent Couture, his 10-year-old daughter Eve Reyes, and Gen. Eugene Govender, are stranded on the robots home planet, Esat Ekt. After being stranded on Esat Ekt for nine years, they return back to Earth, but the geo-political climate has changed. The group lands in Russia, become prisoners,  and discover that America and Russia are battling for the supreme control of the planet. Those in charge seem to be suffering from some kind of collective insanity and rule by violence and fear, including vast numbers of people sent to work camps and internment camps.

As in the previous two books, the story unfolds using interviews, diary entries, mission logs, and covert recordings. The narrative jumps back and forth between the time spent on Esat Ekt and after the group returns to Earth. Most of the main characters were already fully fleshed out in the first two books and are further developed here, while new characters are a bit lacking in development. Russian intelligence officer Katherine Lebedev comes across as an unrealistic cartoonish caricature especially with the "jokey" dialogue she takes part in. There isn't a lot of in-depth worldbuilding on Esat Ekt, and what is presented doesn't seem alien. The political climate on Earth is examined, but

Taken as a whole I'd give the series 4 stars, but, for me, this was a weak ending. I'm not entirely thrilled with Neuval's choice to make the plot so political. I get it; the current polarized political climate is disturbing. For me, however, all this did was make the presentation a bit too preachy in this final installment of the series and I didn't get as much of the science fiction, and robots, I craved.  Additionally, I can't help it, but I missed the unnamed narrator from the first two books. 

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

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Into the Storm

Into the Storm by Tristram Korten
Random House Publishing Group: 4/24/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524797881

Into the Storm: Two Ships, a Deadly Hurricane, and an Epic Battle for Survival by Tristram Korten is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of two doomed ships and a harrowing Coast Guard search-and-rescue operation.

An informative slow paced beginning sets the groundwork for the story. Korten opens up with an introduction to the brave, highly trained members of the Coast Guard on duty who would be pivotal in the search and rescue operations and a description of the two ships and their captains. The true story happened in late September/early October of 2015 when Hurricane Joaquin raged across the Caribbean. A pair of cargo vessels were in the path of this destructive storm. Captain Michael Davidson's ship was the El Faro, a 790-foot American behemoth with a crew of thirty-three, and Captain Renelo Gelera ship was the Minouche, a 230-foot freighter with a dozen sailors aboard.

After the ships leave port and the storm develops and subsequently changes course, the pace becomes more frantic.  The Coast Guard was informed that the Minouche was taking on water on the night of October 1. They worked in the dark through the raging storm, with rescue swimmer Ben Cournia in the sea loading survivors into the helicopter rescue basket. They manged to save the crew of the Minouche. The rescue mission for the El Faro was not successful and became the largest U.S. maritime disaster in decades.

This is an extremely well-researched and well-written account of the events during Hurricane Joaquin and the heroic efforts of the Coast Guard in their search and rescue mission.  A tension filled nail biter that is a true life thriller.  Into the Storm includes maps, notes, and an index. (Korten's online GQ article about the hurricane includes photos of the men involved and visual information that may be included in the book but wasn't in my review copy.)

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


Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins Publishers: 4/24/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062697936

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver is a very highly recommended collection of two novellas and ten short stories that focus on property and how ownership of homes and objects can affect the lives of those who own them. This is an excellent collection of well-written, thought provoking, engaging short stories full of insight into human nature. All the characters are complex and multi-dimensional, even in the briefest of stories. Property is an exceptional look at people and their relationship to their possessions.Certainly this will be one of the best short story collections I will have read this year.


The Standing Chandelier: A Novella - Artistically inclined Jillian Frisk has become accustom to the bewildering experience of having other women dislike her. When her long-time best friends Weston gets engaged to Paige, she is expecting their 25 year friendship to endure, but Paige has other plans.
The Self-Seeding Sycamore - A widow of fifty-seven had left the gardening to her husband and now she must deal with what was likely his nemesis, the neighbor's tree that drops thousands of seeds in her garden.
Domestic Terrorism - Thirty-something Liam doesn't seem to find adult life especially compelling and refuses to leave his basement bedroom in his parent's home, much to their chagrin.

The Royal Male - Gordon Bosky, a postal carrier, begins to hoard half of the mail from his route rather than deliver it.

Exchange Rates - A miserly retired professor visits his son in England and complains constantly about the exchange rate of the dollar versus the pound. When he gives his son his pound notes as he leaves, he expects his son to send a check and reimburse him so he can avoid the exchange fees.

Kilifi Creek - On short notice, Liana, a young woman from the USA, imposes on the home of an older couple living in Africa based on knowing friends of friends of friends.

Repossession -  Helen Rutledge buys a two-story semidetached on Lansing Terrace in record time and begins to fix it up.

The ChapStick - Peter's father is supposedly dying, again, and he must fly down to see him, again, only this time the TSA takes umbrage to his "attitude" and his ChapStick.

Negative Equity - A married couple breaks up during the housing crisis, but can't afford to leave or sell their home.

Vermin -  A couple buys a house they loved renting, but ownership and fixing the house up destroys their relationship.

Paradise to Perdition -  Barry Mendelssohn embezzles a huge sum of money, changes his name to Rodrigo Perez, and moves into a tropical resort, but discovers the easy life isn't quite as exciting as he thought..

The Subletter: A Novella - Sara Moseley, a writer living in Belfast, instinctively keeps track of what other people owe. She briefly considers moving to another country, and has young woman set up to sublet her apartment. Before she can move, however, the two are both living in the apartment which begins a passive/aggressive fight over territorial rights and possessions. 

As usual, I have a plethora of quotes from Shriver that express many of my thoughts to such perfection it's hard not to share them all. 
" careless people were with their antipathy, how they threw it around for fun; how these days people indiscriminately sprayed vituperation every which way as if launching a mass acid attack in a crowded public square. Sheer meanness had become a customary form of entertainment."  (The Standing Chandelier)

"She couldn’t speak for the human sphere, but apparently in the botanical world, without the constant intercession of a benevolent higher power, evil triumphed." (The Self-Seeding Sycamore)
"Though Liana imagined herself undemanding, even the easy to please required fresh sheets, which would have to be laundered after her departure, then dried and folded. She would require a towel for swimming, a second for her shower. She would expect dinner, replete with discreet refreshments of her wineglass, strong filtered coffee every morning, and - what cost older people more than a sponger in her early twenties realized - steady conversational energy channeled in her direction for the duration of her stay." (Kilifi Creek)

"Pricks get away with acting like pricks because they’ve always gotten away with acting like pricks, and no one wants to interfere with the natural order of the universe." (The ChapStick) This perfectly captures the attitude of many people, and, to no surprise, especially several of those I encountered on my last bout of flying, the trip that made me declare I was never flying again.

"Apparently the gene for small-mindedness was passed down maternally like the one for hair loss." (The Subletter)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Then She Was Gone

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
Atria Books: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501154645

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended addictive novel of psychological suspense.

Ellie Mack was fifteen, the youngest of three, and her mother's favorite when she disappeared in 2005. There were never any clues and her case soon went cold. Laurel Mack's whole life seemed to crumble after her daughter Ellie disappeared. Her marriage with Paul ended and she became distant to her surviving children, Hanna and Jake. When a final piece of evidence was discovered ten years after her disappearance, Ellie is finally closed and Laurel is trying to put her life back together, even though she still feels she has no real answers as to what happened to Ellie.

When Laurel meets a charming man at a café, author Floyd Dunn, she is surprised to find herself actually accepting a dinner invitation. As their relationship becomes more serious, Laurel meets Floyd's daughters and his youngest daughter, Poppy, takes her breath away because she so resembles Ellie. When Laurel learns that Floyd’s former partner vanished five years earlier after dumping Poppy with him, it brings back unanswered questions and memories of Ellie's disappearance. But when Laurel learns that Poppy's mother, Noelle Donnelly, was also Ellie's math tutor, it seems to be too coincidental.

Then She Was Gone is a wonderful example of how excellent writing and superb planning can elevate a psychological thriller to a perfect rating. Will most readers figure out what likely happened to Ellie very early on? Yes. Is the insight into the characters and the journey of discovery more important than this one big puzzle piece? Oh, yes! Many readers (and reviewers) of suspense novels can predict how a plot is going to go, sometimes very early on in the novel. Personally, I believe in this case Jewell acknowledges that truism and doesn't give a whit about it. In fact she uses this detail and guessing/knowing is only going to increase the suspense and deepen the mystery.

Part of the clever, skillful writing is found in the structure Jewell chose to present Then She Was Gone. The novel is told by several narrators and is split into three parts. The first part has chapters that alternate between the present day events and ten years ago at the time of Ellie's disappearance. The second section begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. The first two sections are primarily narrated by Laurel. The third section has several narrators and those voices are in different time periods, past and present. The structure keeps the pace quick. This, in turn, increases the tension and the psychological suspense, while simultaneously building an uneasy anxiety in the reader.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books via Netgalley

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Liar's Candle

Liar's Candle by August Thomas
Scribner: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501172847

Liar's Candle by August Thomas is a highly recommended thriller.

Penny Kessler is a 21 year-old intern at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, when, during a 4th of July celebration at the embassy, a bomb explodes killing 256 of Penny’s friends and colleagues. Penny is in the hospital, sedated, and doesn't realize that a picture of her has gone global in the media and she is the face that represents the international incident. Showing up at her bedside in the hospital, demanding that the doctor give her something to make her regain consciousness is Frank Lerman, a senior State Department official who is assisted by Connor Beauregard. Her boss, Brenda Pelecchia, tries to stop him to no avail.

Penny is briefly questioned about her relationship with Zachary Robson, an embassy employee who disappeared after the explosion, but then the Turkish Prime Minister arrives and takes her to the presidential palace as an "invited" guest/prisoner of Melek Palamut, daughter of the president. She is being questioned about Zach and everyone assumes she has some information that they all want. Penny miraculously manages to escape from the Presidential Palace and manages to run into Connor, who has been sent to retrieve her. Soon it becomes clear that there is a whole lot more going on than either Penny or Connor realize. Penny is believed to have crucial information everyone wants and someone wants them both dead. Penny has become the woman who knew too much, but what does Penny know?

Liar's Candle is a fast-paced thriller written with a nod to sheer escapism. Thomas, who was a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, captures life in Turkey and the local atmosphere, with an eye for detail, quite well. Do Penny's many astounding escapes and strategic feats stretch credulity? Sure they do. Do you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy the novel. Yup. Is it worth it to get to the end? It certainly is worth accepting everything this young, naive, untrained 21 year-old manages to accomplish in order to enjoy the story. The novel held my attention throughout, even when I was surreptitiously rolling my eyes over some spectacular exploit Penny pulled off. The bad guys are bad, the good guys good. Was I entertained? I certainly was and the rapid pace helped keep me reading.

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

The Plague

The Plague by Kevin Chong
Arsenal Pulp Press: 4/24/18
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781551527185

The Plague by Kevin Chong is a recommended modern adaptation of Albert Camus's original 1947 classic novel.

The Plague is written as a historical account looking back to the year 201- when the plague occurred. The setting is moved from the original French village or Oran to present day Vancouver where the unnamed, omniscient narrator tells the story and follows three characters. After the rats and subsequent other wild animals who live in modern cities started dying in alarming numbers, then people began to experience flu-like symptoms and swelling in their lymph nodes. The sick are clearly infected with Yersinia pestis, or the plague, and the city is immediately placed under quarantine.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is trap in the city while his wife is off receiving alternate treatment for her cancer. He is trying to find a way to redress the treatment-resistant disease, while he is alternately seeking to find meaning in suffering. Megan Tso is an American writer who is trapped in the city while on a book tour. She is trying to hide from an ex while assisting Dr. Rieux. Raymond Siddhu, who is married and the father of twins, is a reporter who is trapped in the city due to the quarantine.

Chong explores the same themes as the original novel, including the nature of destiny and the human condition, the frailties of human behavior, the psychological strain of being under quarantine, and the bravery required in the face of futility. He also places the novel in the present day by addressing many current political and cultural anxieties. His characters are well-developed and compelling. Chong does an incredible job developing his characters and making them real individuals facing a stressful crisis.

The plot however, when it should be full of nerve-racking tension and anxiety because, duh, it's the plague in a major city, is actually too slow moving and, well, a bit dull. As a character study and used as a comparison to Camus's novel, it is worthwhile to read; as a novel though about the plague hitting Vancouver, the pace of the actual story is rather weary.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press

Raising the Dad

Raising the Dad by Tom Matthews
St. Martin's Press: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250094766

Raising the Dad by Tom Matthews is a recommended drama featuring a dysfunctional family in an unimaginable situation.

John Husted's family is struggling. The doctor for his mother, Rose, has diagnosed her with Alzheimer's. His older brother, Mike, a ne'er-do-well drug abusing rocker, has just been released from prison. His marriage of seventeen years to Robin has become a stale, routine. His daughter Katie is hanging out with a moody, fatalistic group at her high school. To add to the stress, John, a grant proposal writer for a nonprofit group, is falling behind on his job.

When an old friend of his father wants to meet with John at a familiar restaurant across the street from the hospital that he and John's father helped found, he agrees. John's father Dr. Lawrence Husted, had a debilitating stroke thirty years ago and died. Since then, his family has been struggling. What the old doctor shares with John is unbelievable, overwhelming, and places John in an inconceivable situation. What his family believed about his father's death isn't exactly the truth. Now John's stress levels are increasing and he must decide what to tell his family about the new revelations.

The writing is good and Matthews does address the history of the family and the struggles they have encountered over the years since their father's stroke. The characters are developed, and background information is disclosed. Their relationship with the family patriarch is portrayed realistically, helping to set up the conflicts and exposed buried emotions. The characters make the novel worthwhile. There is growth and development. There is change.

The actual situation that the family finds themselves in, however, is truly unbelievable and, well, preposterous. In a farce, I could go with it, but this isn't written as a satire so it was a struggle for me to accept the situation. There is a story here and the interaction between the characters is worth the read, but you will have to overlook the impossible in the novel.

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Big Ones

The Big Ones by Lucy Jones
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385542708

The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) by Lucy Jones is a highly recommended look at eleven of the world's greatest natural disasters. Dr. Jones tells the historical and geological stories of the selected disasters, and what they have revealed about the population effected. Each disaster covered was the "Big One"at the time it happened and fundamentally changed the community and culture in the region. Taken together as a whole, all of these disasters can provide insight into how fear influences the response to catastrophes and the reasoning behind those reactions.

The disasters covered are:
Pompeii, Roman Empire, AD 79: A volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius sent down poisonous gases and heavy ash to bury the Roman city.
Lisbon, Portugal, 1755: On November 1, All Saints Day, An earthquake occurred with the smallest estimated magnitude being 8.5 and the largest is 9.0.  A tsunami headed up the mouth the Tagus River.
Iceland, 1783: The Laki eruption in 1783-84 resulted in 10,000 deaths, from the gases and famine. Pastor Jon Steingrimsson should be remembered for his tireless work in trying to find food for survivors. The gas emissions effected weather and health across Europe.
California, United States, 1861–62: A devastating flood occurred in the winter of 1861–62, killing thousands and bankrupting the state. A three-hundred-mile stretch of California’s Central Valley  was covered under thirty feet deep in water.
Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan, 1923: An earthquake of magnitude 7.9 destroyed most of Tokyo and Yokohama and killed over 140,000 people.
Mississippi, United States, 1927: A flood covered over twenty-six thousand square miles of land had been flooded, displacing over six hundred thousand people.
Tangshan, China, 1976: July 27, 1976 a magnitude 7.8 struck right on a fault running right through Tangshan, a city of 1.5 million people.
The Indian Ocean, 2004: The magnitude 9.1 earthquake and tsunami hit the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, on December 26, 2004. The physical scale of it was unprecedented. The length of the fault that moved in that earthquake was over nine hundred miles. Wave heights from the resulting tsunami were 100 ft, 65 ft, to 35 feet and travel across the ocean, slamming into the coastlines of eleven countries.
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, 2005: Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm that stretched some 400 miles across, struck the gulf coast of the United States causing $100 billion in damages. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes while FEMA was slow to react.
L’Aquila, Italy, 2009: An earthquake swarm starts in January and leads up to the big one, on April 6, when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake tore L’Aquila apart. The city sat directly  on top of a fault and every building sustained damage and twenty thousand were destroyed.
Fortune Tohoku, Japan, 2011: On March 11th a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred offshore, where a fault slipped 250 miles. The resulting tsunami was several times larger than expected, with waves from 40 to 100 feet high. Waves hit the backup generators at the Daiichi nuclear power plant and the cooling systems failed for three reactors, which then overheated and nuclear fuel melted.

The final chapter is based on the likelihood that the San Andreas fault will slip, resulting in a huge earthquake occurring in Los Angeles in the future and the ShakeOut  program that helps translate the science of the earthquake into a tangible reality for citizens. Finally, after empathy, these seven steps are suggested for those involved in future natural disasters: Educate yourself; Don’t assume government has you covered; Engage with local leaders; Work with your community; Remember that disasters are more than the moment at which they happen; Think for yourself. Dr. Jones includes notes, a bibliography and illustration credits.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

The Life List of Adrian Mandrick

The Life List of Adrian Mandrick by Chris White
Touchstone: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501174308

The Life List of Adrian Mandrick by Chris White is a recommended debut novel that examines a life falling apart.

Adrian Mandrick is an anesthesiologist and avid birder living in Colorado. He loves his wife, Stella, and their two children. He is dedicated to adding birds to his life list of 863 species correctly identified and cataloged. It is the third longest list in the North American region, but the number two list holder just passed away, so, if he can find more rare birds to add to his list, Adrian can move up to the number two spot. He is also addicted to painkillers and allowing that addiction to take over his life, again, while avoiding replying to a call from his estranged mother.

Adrian is avoiding discussing his past and his current addiction with anyone. In his past, his mother ran away from his father with him and his brother. A year later his father found them and told Adrian that his mother had molested him when he was too young to remember. That day marks the first time Adrian used pain pills and when he began distancing himself from his mom. Adrian first learned his love of birding from his mom. Now he avoids any contact with her, so when she tries to contact him, he avoids her and turns back to using pills.

While Adrian's obsession with birds and pills is well-researched and well-covered, White gave me no reason to sympathize with Adrian and his psychological problems. (I will admit to having flashbacks to what I will call "the klonopin novel" as various and sundry brand names of different pills were thrown out.) In many ways this novel would have been more successful and believable had Adrian submerged himself in his addiction with birding, skipping the whole pain pills abuse, because his love of birds is the most interesting obsession. Or tie his addiction to both pills and birding more completely to his childhood and that one memorable day.

Adrian is the only character that is looked at in any depth, which left the rest of the characters feeling like stereotypes, but even Adrian's concerns are referenced, but never completely scrutinized. Adrian's Native American heritage along with global warming and changing habitats of birds are both mentioned, but never explored further. Mentioning buzz words or current concerns in a novel is not the same as exploring how these thing actually shape a character's personality or his thought patterns.

The emotional ending does succeed in redeeming some of the parts of this underdeveloped novel, but it never set itself apart as one of the best and brightest.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Touchstone.

The Comedown

The Comedown by Rebekah Frumkin
Henry Holt & Company: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250127525

The Comedown by Rebekah Frumkin is a recommended intergenerational family drama following three generations of two interconnected Cleveland families, one black, one white, from the 1970s to 2009.

The drama centers on a 1973 drug deal gone bad and is concerned with a missing suitcase that may contain a quarter of a million dollars. Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, a drug addict, witnesses the shooting of his dealer, Reggie Marshall. Leland  takes off with a suitcase full of cash. The story is then told from the multiple viewpoints of members of both Leland’s and Reggie’s families for the next 30 years.

The novel is less of a mystery with members looking for the suitcase, than it is a compilation of character studies. Each character has a chapter to discuss their formative years and a crucial event during that time that other characters share. Since the novel opens with two pages of family trees, that fact that it is a heavily populated novel shouldn't be a surprise. Frumkin places her various characters in the same historical events from different points-of-view. She has her characters throwing blame for their misfortune on the other family. Her flawed characters deal with mental illness, secrets, self-delusions, addiction, poverty, and racism.

The Comedown is an ambitious debut novel with a complex plot set in a well-researched historical context. It is also a novel that didn't completely work for me. The individual stories are very strong, engrossing character studies, but there are an overabundance of characters, several of which didn't need to be a part of the novel.  There didn't need to be quite so many characters because, at the end, there was a lack of a coherent connection between all of the characters and a plethora of loose ends never addressed. As a reader, this bothers me. I was also not a great fan of the style in which the novel is written. The quality of the writing is quite good, however, which places Frumkin as a novelist I will watch for in the future. Many people liked the novel much more than me, so I'm sure that my issues with it are more a matter of personal preference.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Henry Holt & Company.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Go Ask Fannie

Go Ask Fannie by Elisabeth Hyde
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/10/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735218567

Go Ask Fannie by Elisabeth Hyde is a highly recommended family drama.

Murray Blaire, 81, has invited his three surviving adult children to his New Hampshire farm for the weekend. Ruth, the oldest, is a wealthy lawyer who lives with her husband and two sons in Washington D.C. Ruth likes order, control, and plans in place to cover all contingencies. George, the middle sibling, is a nurse and marathon runner who lives a couple hours away from his father  in Concord. Lizzie, the youngest, is an English Professor at a college near her father. 

Murray's only hope for the weekend is to have Ruth and George talk Lizzie in to breaking up with her much older married boyfriend. Ruth, naturally, has her own list of things she wants to cover, especially looking at assisted living facilities for their father. George, who is always squabbling with Ruth, is trying unsuccessfully to not quarrel with her. Lizzie, however, arrives with news that changes her father's plans. She broke up with her boyfriend, but when she was picking up their mother's Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which she left at his house, she discovered that he had dropped the book into a sink of water and damaged it. Her reaction may result in criminal charges against her.

As with any family drama much of the action also concerns the past. Lillian, wife and mother of the group, and sibling, David, died over 30 years ago.  A good portion of the novel involves what happened years ago, when they were a family of six, not four. There are secrets and questions about that time that have never been shared or asked, and the full story was really never told. Many present day resentments and attitudes toward each other all stem back to that time, when they lost their mother and brother.

Go Ask Fannie is a straightforward, well-written novel. Hyde also allows us insight into the inner thoughts of her characters. The narrative follows these characters during a weekend while uncovering the story of the past and what happened years ago. The past helps explain why they react the way they do and why they all relate to each other in the predictable way they do today.  This is not a story with dark secrets or shocking twists, but it is a compelling family drama.  

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

After Anna

After Anna by Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin's Press: 4/10/18
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250099655

After Anna by Lisa Scottoline is a highly recommended domestic thriller.

Maggie Ippoliti is overjoyed to receive a call from her daughter, Anna Desroches, since she hadn't seen or heard from her daughter since she was six months old. After Anna's birth Maggie was suffering from postpartum psychosis. Anna's father Florian Desroches divorced Maggie and immediately moved overseas, cutting Maggie off from all access to her daughter. Anna had also written to her mother saying she wanted nothing to do with her. Now Anna, 17, is attending high school at an exclusive boarding school in the States. Her father, his second wife, and their two children were all killed in a plane crash, leaving Anna alone. She is now reaching out to Maggie, trying to form a relationship and family. Maggie's husband, pediatric allergist Noah Alderman, is supportive and excited for Maggie. She has been a wonderful stepmother to his son, 10-year-old Caleb, who has apraxia.

After Anna opens with Noah on trial for Anna's murder and awaiting sentencing, so we know right from the start that this isn't going to be the story of a happy family reunion. The chapters alternate back and forth between when Maggie first received the phone call from Anna and to Noah's trial for murdering Anna. To complicate matters, Maggie's narrative is told in chronological order and move forward in time, while Noah's chapters are told in reverse order and move backward in time. It is also clear at the beginning that Anna is not to be trusted, but that Maggie is too ecstatic to allow any doubts to creep in to the burgeoning relationship.

The characters are well-developed. I will admit that at the outset Maggie's over-exuberant, excited and positive exclamations over Anna's sudden phone call and appearance turned me off. Sure, I get it, be happy, but don't lose all sense of caution and discernment. Her actions didn't seem plausible to me. Yes, encourage the relationship, but goodness, use your head, take it slow, and tell Anna you want a relationship with her, but you all need to take the time to get to know each other. Or, if Maggie couldn't do this, Noah should have encouraged her to take some caution.

Scottoline is an accomplished author, so she handles with aplomb the complications of her novel and the expected twists and turns leading up to the meeting of the two timelines and on to the conclusion. After Anna is an entertaining story with complications, cliffhangers, and courtroom drama. There are a few plot holes and the ending is a bit of a stretch, but it will entertain and hold your attention throughout.

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Macbeth by Jo Nesbø
Crown Archetype: 4/10/18
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780553419054
Hogarth Shakespeare Series 

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø is a highly recommended retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth for the Hogarth Shakespeare Series.

Nesbø sets his updated version in a hopeless, gloomy industrial town during the drug wars of the 1970s. He keeps many of the original names from the play, so a comparison is easy to make. Duncan is the new chief of police, idealistic and determined to clean up the town by taking on the city's drug lord Hecate. Inspector Macbeth is the head of the SWAT team who is regarded as a natural leader, but he also has problems with addiction and craves power. Add in the other characters, three sisters/witches, and Macbeth's scheming wife, Lady, and you have the stage set for corruption, guilt, ambition, violence, greed, and murder on all sides.

Assuming readers will know the plot of Shakespeare's Macbeth and have at least a little familiarity with the characters, it quickly becomes clear that Macbeth translates well to a crime novel and Nesbø is the perfect writer to tackle this play for the Hogarth series. It is more violent than the play, but that is to be expected with a Nesbø novel. He is an excellent writer and I felt he did a great tackling the rewriting while keeping some of the iconic scenes. Along with the adapting the plot of the original play to a novel, Nesbø adds the descriptive passages that his other novels are well known for, setting the scenes up in his own unique way. The novel does go on a bit longer than necessarily warranted and the opening is a bit slow, but as a whole this is a successful addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare Series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crown Archetype.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Overstory

The Overstory by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton & Company: 4/3/18
eBook review copy; 512 pages
ISBN-13: 9780393635522

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a very highly recommended, masterful, epic saga about trees and our relationship to them.

"The tree is saying things, in words before words."
There are nine main characters in this story that spans over fifty years. The novel is broken down into four main sections, Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. The chapters in each section follow the main characters introduced in "Roots." The characters include Nick Hoel. Mimi Ma, Adam Appicj, Ray and Dorothy, Doug  Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford, and Olivia Vandergriff. Their individual stories are presented like short stories at the beginning, with a common theme between them. Then in "Trunk" the characters begin to meet or join forces, have epiphanies, or start their life's work. They are all summoned in different ways by trees to take a stand to save the few remaining acres of virgin forest from industrial harvesting and environmental destruction.

The writing is exquisite and meticulous in this finely detailed novel. I appreciated the introduction and development of the characters in the opening chapters, which resemble short stories. This choice to introduce all of these characters before the larger story took shape worked well for me and I was pleased to then see the characters begin to join together. The connectedness of all things is depicted in the overall theme and in the arrangement of the story. Powers includes information about individual species of trees throughout the narrative. The term "Eco Opera" is an apt description for this monumental novel.

It is an emotional novel and I did find myself tearing up or becoming incensed at several points. The time span of the story serves well when considering the growth of a tree. While the novel does not attempt to persuade any one to become an eco-terrorist or take on environmental activism, it does have some wonderful insight into how humans need to realize that everything is connected and how losing parts of the natural world, trees, could eventually lead to our own demise. The Overstory is a novel to relish and appreciate the fine writing and the message.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones

The Very Marrow of Our Bones by Christine Higdon
ECW Press: 4/3/18
eBook review copy; 440 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781770414167

The Very Marrow of Our Bones by Christine Higdon is a very highly recommended debut novel which follows five decades in the lives of two women and a  mystery.
"Sometimes pain brings people together, helps them to cross the grand abyss of human discord. The lost are found. Sons reach out to fathers after years of silence. Sisters forgive brothers. Sometimes it’s too late."

One November night in 1967 two women disappear from Fraser Arm, a small town on the Fraser River near Vancouver. Bette Parsons and neighbor Alice McFee disappear, seemingly without a trace.  Bette left behind her husband and five children. Her youngest and only daughter, ten-year-old Lulu, found the brief note her mother left and, telling no one, hid it. This event marked the beginning of Lulu's secrets and disengagement from her family. Forty years later when talking to her brother, Lulu tells him of the secret note and he says he had secrets of his own about their mother, but dies before he can share them.

Doris Tenpenny, the mute pastor's daughter and egg seller, is a confidant to many in the community, but even she has heard no secrets about the two missing women. She does know secrets about Aloysius McFee, husband to the missing Alice, however, and knows to never trust him. When she sees young Lulu meeting him, she knows it means trouble, but she tells no one about what she sees. Doris is an alert and discerning witness to the lives and secrets around her. Both women become connected through a shared inheritance, as well as unspoken secrets. 

The Very Marrow of Our Bones  is a wonderful, well-written, and perceptive novel that follows the lives of these two very different women for over five decades. I enjoyed this novel from beginning to end. As the story switches back and forth between Lulu's first-person account and Doris' third-person narrative, it is in turns humorous, heartbreaking, maddening, revealing, and hopeful. Much of the pleasure in this fine novel is found in following the path that each of their lives traversed while heading toward the conclusion. It is an immersive reading experience.

Both of the characters are admirably well-developed and clearly written as very different individuals. Even if the chapters didn't tell you who was talking you will know because Lulu and Doris have distinct voices, emotions, and characteristics. Although the mystery of the disappearing women is always present, it really is also in the back ground, there but pursued, for most of the story. The novel really focuses on the myriad of different results that are direct consequences of secrets and actions.
I did have to think about the ending for a bit before writing this review and decided that it was a fitting resolution to the novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of ECW Press.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Female Persuasion

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/3/18
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9781594488405

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer is a highly recommended coming-of-age novel that follows a decade in the life of a young woman and explores friendship, relationships, ambition, and mentors.

Greer Kadetsky is a freshman at Ryland College who is trying to keep a long-distance relationship going with her high school boy friend, Cory Pinto, who is attending Princeton. She has always been a bookish, intelligent, independent girl with parents who were more self-involved than parental.  She was also accepted at and planning to attend an Ivy league school with Cory, but her parents messed up the financial aid form, which Greer still resents. When Greer gets groped at a frat party during her first weekend at college, she is hesitant to report it. Her politically savvy friend Zee urges her to, but she doesn't until other girls go through the same thing. When the university hearing on the matter results in no sanctions or actions, Greer and Zee are angry at their inability to address the actions of this young man.

Greer and Zee are still angry when they go to hear the famous, charismatic feminist Faith Frank, sixty-three, speak on campus. Greer is mesmerized by Frank, asks her a question related to the groping incident, and the university's empty response to the charges. Later the two continue their discussion in the bathroom. Faith is taken by Greer, talks to the young woman and gives her her card. This leads to an opportunity after Greer graduates to work for the feminist icon at her new foundation, Loci, which sponsors conferences about women's issues.

The writing is excellent. I loved this:  "You know, I sometimes think that the most effective people in the world are introverts who taught themselves how to be extroverts." It is clear from the beginning that Wolitzer knows how to tell an entertaining and engaging story while keeping her plot moving forward. The Female Persuasion really becomes a saga as it follows Greer and the others through the decade. The narrative follows Greer, Cory, Faith, Zee, and another male character. These are all well-developed but flawed characters, with strengths and weaknesses. The characters are all distinctive and have their own individual voices. While Greer is the compelling central character, in some ways Cory is actually the more sympathetic and humane character.

Is this the feminist blockbuster of our times? Well, I'm not convinced it is, but perhaps I'm too old for it. It is certainly a very good novel and I was engrossed in the story. I would agree that it explores embracing womanhood, yet also suffering because of it. All the young characters start out emotional, wanting to change the world, striving to make their mark on the world and do something. They are also can be a bit entitled, naive, and sometimes, well, whiny. I realize that they don't feel the need to acknowledge what women before them have experienced, how many of us have been groped, or worse long before they came along, but they also seem to want all women to be pigeon-holed into walking lock-step with a set list of ideals.

"'Sisterhood,' she said, 'is about being together with other women in a cause that allows all women to make the individual choices they want.'" Although this sentiment was shared, it was never really embraced in the novel and perhaps that is what is bothering me. As women, we fought for the right to be individuals and to be able to voice our own opinions and be in charge of our own bodies. We don't need to throw that away by insisting that it means only these ideals or only a specific stand on certain issues. Sometimes I see women destroying our own freedoms by not allowing others to have their own views and opinions based on their experiences.

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

The Waters & The Wild

The Waters & The Wild by DeSales Harrison
Random House Publishing Group: 4/3/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989540

The Waters & The Wild by DeSales Harrison is a recommended mystery - for the right reader.

First Father Nelson Spurlock has a young women visit him, looking for something her father may have sent him. Later Spurlock receives through the mail the confession, of sorts, from a man he doesn't know. The writer is Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst and single father living in New York City and father of a teenage daughter, Clementine, the young woman who must have been Spurlock's visitor. Abend apparently had an affair years earlier with a woman in Paris, presumably the mother of his daughter. When one of his patients commits suicide, Spurlock delivered the eulogy, which is what brought the man to Abend's attention. After this death, however, his daughter disappears and Abend begins to receive threatening messages, which lead him to examine his past.

While the writing is beautiful in this novel and the mystery is intriguing, the presentation and the prose overwhelm the plot. The beginning starts out strong, but after that the sheer barrage of language eliminates some of the pleasure of following the twists and turns of the story. The narrative mostly moves along at a crawl and I began to lose patience with the florid language of the prose and snail's pace of the plot. It must also be said that at times it was difficult to follow which character was talking as they weren't presented from the start as unique individuals.  At the conclusion, it is an interesting story but, for me, a struggle to finish. 2.5 rounded up for the right reader.

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