Thursday, May 31, 2018

Still Lives

Still Lives by Maria Hummel
Counterpoint Press: 6/5/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781619021112

Still Lives by Maria Hummel is a recommended mystery concerned with who might be responsible for an artist's disappearance.

Maggie Richter, the staff editor at Los Angeles’s Rocque Museum, is attending the opening gala for avant-garde artist Kim Lord's latest show. Lord's self-portraits feature paintings with Lord posed as famous murdered women. Maggie wanted to avoid attending because Lord's boyfriend, Greg Shaw Ferguson, is Maggie's ex. To make matters worse, Greg left Maggie for Lord.  However, when Kim Lord is missing from her own opening gala, something is amiss and the search is on for the controversial artist. When Greg becomes the prime suspect, Maggie begins a low key investigation into Lord's disappearance and the suspects.

The novel works because of Hummel's careful descriptions of the various characters and their concerns. While Lord's show may disgust many of them, they are all ambitious and concerned over the success of the museum and keeping their place in the art world of Los Angeles. Maggie uses her place as an insider along with her training as a journalist to fuel her investigation. The novel does have a very slow start and it takes a while for the pace to pick up and for Maggie's investigation to begin.

The writing is good, but I was surprised Still Lives was chosen as a Book of the Month. Perhaps this is because I had a couple issues with it. It is a good novel, but not quite that good.

Maggie is the narrator, so you get to read many of her thoughts in descriptions, etc. I'll admit right now I had a problem with some of these since they demeaned other people. For example: "Evie in the cheap gray pantsuit and white blouse of a supermarket manager." Really? Why not just say a cheap suit? Why describe it as connected with someone's job - someone who likely doesn't wear a cheap suit? And why have Maggie, as a character, even think of this if she comes from a modest background? And this is just one example.

While the big hook is that the novel is about the "media's fetishistic fascination with the violent murders of beautiful women," I never really felt that was the focus. Lord's art dealt with it and it was discussed in the context of her art work, but in reality a statement was never definitively made. The famous murders were discussed - but I began to feel that Hummel was taking their murders and using them as a plot device to pull in readers. A "message" novel doesn't guarantee a 5 star novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Counterpoint Press.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Maw

The Maw by Taylor Zajonc
Skyhorse Publishing: 6/5/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781510732407

The Maw by Taylor Zajonc is a highly recommended action/adventure story set in a supercave in Tanzania.

Milo Luttrell is a historian who is mysteriously invited to Tanzania under the pretense of a project that may help him keep his job. When he arrives he discovers he has been invited by Dale Brunsfield, a billionaire explorer, to join an expedition that will be exploring a new supercave. Milo has been invited because of his research into the life of famed explorer Lord Riley DeWar. Dale believes that DeWar's last, lost expedition may have been to this cave and he needs Milo along for his expertise. Milo, who has no spelunking experience, is joining the team of seven that just happens to include his ex-girlfriend and a reality TV show star.

This is a thrilling adventure story that is full of intrigue and suspense. There are enough complications and emergencies in the narrative to leave you expecting a unanticipated catastrophe around even corner.  The descriptive passages make you even more cognizant of the unknown discovers awaiting along with the danger as the situation deteriorates for the expedition. Zajonc keeps the pace quick, moving the plot along, as the challenges mount. The Maw will hold your attention throughout.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing.

The Book of M

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
HarperCollins Publishers: 6/5/18
eBook review copy; 496 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062669605

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd is a very highly recommended, unique dystopian novel. This is a noteworthy debut.

An epidemic called the Forgetting first starts in India when Hemu Joshi lost his shadow.  Soon it spreads and a large part of the population succumbs to the phenomenon. What happens is that people lose their shadows and their memories follow. Once shadowless people forget, they are susceptible to misremembering the world and magically can create new things. They can also forget someone exists and then... they don't.

"Why had it turned out to be that shadows were the parts of bodies where memories were stored? Why did it happen to some and not others? Once it finally did happen, why did some people forget things after two weeks and some hang on much longer? And when they finally did forget, why did the earth itself seem to forget, too? The image of the strange creature in the woods outside came to him again. Why when a shadowless forgot that deer didn’t have wings on their heads, did it become true?"

The Book of M follows a number of characters, starting with Ory and his wife Max. They escaped the Forgetting by hiding in a hotel in the woods outside Arlington, Virginia, and putting into place a set of protective rules. Now Max has lost her shadow. Ory has given her a tape recorder for her to record her memories and tell her story as a way for her to remember who she is and who Ory is. Then Ory leaves to scavenge for food in the city and Max leaves to keep Ory safe. Ory returns and begins his search for her. 

The narrative follows Max, Ory and several other characters. Everyone heads to the south where they have all heard rumors about someone called, among other names,  "The One Who Gathers"  in New Orleans who may have a cure for the Forgetting.

The Book of M is an exceptional captivating and compelling novel that held my undivided attention from start to finish. The writing is incredible; it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The concept that our shadows hold our memories paired with the importance of our memories on who we are, what we do, and how we relate to others and the world, becomes insightful and mind-bending in the narrative. Adding to the complex, absorbing plot are the dynamic characters Shepherd has created and placed in this changed world. The ending was surprising, nothing I would have predicted, yet it works in this intricate, ingenious novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles

Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles by Anne Tyler
Penguin Random House: 5/29/18
eBook review copy; 24 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525565079

Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles by Anne Tyler is a very highly recommended re-released short story about a faith healer.
Susanna is an ordinary woman whose gift to heal people by touching them is discovered when she was seventeen.  As word of her God-given power to heal spreads, the gift her touch seems to bestow on some people also becomes a burden she has to bear. This is a wonderful short story!

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


Calypso by David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company: 5/29/18
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316392389

Calypso by David Sedaris is a very highly recommended collection of 21 darkly humorous, yet touching, essays. This may be the best book by Sedaris yet.

David Sedaris has always had a keen eye for details and the absurd while observing the world with a cynical, but honest, eye. In these stories he focuses more on mortality and death, while simultaneously showing the love and devotion he has for Hugh and his family. The discussions between David and his sisters are both hilarious and insightful. While I can generally mention some topics covered in the essays, Sedaris smoothly segues from one topic to another. This is a memorable collection

Company Man: One of perks to middle age is that, "with luck, you'll acquire a guest room."
Now We Are Five: How David and his siblings are handling the suicide of their youngest sister, Tiffany. Also buying a beach house he and Hugh named the Sea Section.
Little Guy: Reflections on being a short man. "I’m not one of those short men who feels he got shafted."
Stepping Out: David discusses his Fitbit obsession.
A House Divided: Reflections on class, and  Tiffany embracing poverty as an accomplishment.
The Perfect Fit: "I’m not sure how it is in small families, but in large ones relationships tend to shift over time. You might be best friends with one brother or sister, then two years later it might be someone else. Then it’s likely to change again, and again after that." And shopping with his sisters.
Leviathan: Sedaris contemplates how people become crazy in two ways: animals and diet, and he discusses feeding the wild turtles near their beach house. 
Your English Is So Good: Using a language instruction course doesn't necessarily help you with context or commonly used phrases. 
Calypso: America and the spread of information through TV news, along with pictures in wood grain and health concerns, including his desire to feed his tumor to a turtle.
A Modest Proposal: Gay marriage and proposing to Hugh.
The Silent Treatment: His father's inability to have meaningful discussions and growing up with him.
Untamed: A wild fox they named Carol.
The One(s) Who Got Away: David asks Hugh about previous partners.
Sorry: "Whenever I doubt the wisdom of buying a beach house, all I have to do is play a round of Sorry! and it all seems worth it."
Boo-Hooey: Sedaris can’t stand people talking about ghosts, but he does believe they can visit you in your dreams. "Who are you hanging out with, for God’s sake?" someone might ask. "Camp counselors?"
A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately: A self-explanatory list.
Why Aren’t You Laughing?: Sedaris discusses his mother's alcoholism.
I’m Still Standing: Having embarrassing accidents in public on airplanes.
The Spirit World: Amy and a psychic
And While You’re Up There, Check on My Prostate: A discussion of what angry drivers yell at other drivers.
The Comey Memo: Jim Comey was staying at an area beach house and their father's declining abilities.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
via Netgalley.

Late-K Lunacy

Late-K Lunacy by Ted Bernard
Petra Books: 4/14/18
eBook review copy; 428 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781927032831

Late-K Lunacy by Ted Bernard was a did not finish for me. I very rarely stop reading a book, so that alone speaks volumes. While the opening is set in a dystopian future, this ecology-based fictional novel is set in the present and focusing on a professor encouraging a group of student to consider the damaging effects of climate change. There is also fracking starting in the local woods. I tried to keep reading it several times until I finally gave up.

It was a chore to read right from the start due to the overabundance of descriptions and a preachy-lecturing tone to the narrative - all to the detriment of the plot. Everything is over-described, even minor characters. Early on I was muttering to myself, "Just get on with the story." I can accept lecturing me when you also provide me with a compelling set of main characters in a well-paced plot. Then throw in some suspense and intrigue. Develop those compelling characters and establish more of the setting along the way.

What didn't work: immediately lecturing the reader about your environmental concerns; setting the novel in an almost utopian small Ohio college town and providing all the history of this fictitious campus; declaring a love for Millennials making everyone who is not one or all pro-Millennial bad;  making the "bad" guys all stereotypical caricatures, either in descriptions of them (they are never looking good, or even okay) or in their speech patterns; making fun of areas of the country that you consider less intellectually developed than you.... I could go on but the gest of my point is that this reader gave up on Late-K Lunacy pretty early on because the writing wasn't worth the effort. (And it's not that I innately dislike environmental issues, college towns, and young adults - I live in a university town, am environmentally conscious, and have much-appreciated Millennials working for me.) Messages in novels are fine; almost all novels have some message in the plot, but make sure the actual quality of the writing can carry your message-laden plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon
HarperCollins: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 144 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062834621

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon is a very highly recommended collection of seven short essays. It is a sheer pleasure to reads these essays all thematically linked to fatherhood. There are poignant, funny, contemplative, and universal moments in this short collection that will leave a lasting impression on the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole collection.

Contents include:
The Opposite of Writing:  Chabon, father of four, contemplates the advice given to him by a successful writer when he was young. The man told him to not have children if he wants to write great books.
Little Man: A wonderful piece about taking his youngest son, Abraham Chabon, to fashion week in Paris. Abe is a young man who just loves clothes and wants to do something in fashion.
Adventures in Euphemism: Reflections on editing out offensive words and replacing them with a substitute word when reading a story to his children - something many parents have struggled with.
The Bubble People: While we may refer to living in certain areas as living in a bubble, the truth be told, we are all living in a bubble - for exactly one.
Against Dickitude: Thoughts about teaching his son to not be a jerk to girls.
The Old Ball Game: Chabon muses about when he tried to talk his son out of playing baseball, and why he did so, even though he personally loves the game.
Be Cool or Be Cast Out: Thoughts about the stress a group of socially repressive twelve-year junior high students can inflict on each other.
Pops: Chabon shares a memory about his own father.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Little Disasters

Little Disasters by Randall Klein
Penguin Random House; 5/22/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735221680

Little Disasters by Randall Klein is a recommended debut novel that follows two couples (via the narration of the men) during one disastrous year.

Two men, Michael and Paul meet in 2009 at the Brooklyn hospital where their partners, Rebecca and Jenny, are in the delivery room. Michael is an artist and furniture maker and his wife Rebecca is a cookie entrepreneur. Paul is an actor and paralegal and his partner Jenny is a writer. Michael and Rebecca take home their son while Paul and Jenny mourn the death of their son. Paul later calls Michael to have him transform the nursery to an office for Jenny. He also invites the two over for dinner, which is a disaster. Michael accepts the job, which also marks the start of his affair with Jenny.

At the same time, chapters cover a year in the future when an unnamed disaster hits NYC. The opening chapter shows Michael is at the Cloisters in the northernmost tip of Manhattan, waiting for Jenny, who stands him up. Paul is trapped in a subway tunnel under the east river. Some disaster happened which has stopped mass transit, traffic, and electricity, leaving many people stranded during their morning commute who now must find a way home during one of the hottest days of the year.

The writing is excellent, perceptive, and observant with an acute eye for detail. The plot has some built in tension because of the way the book is structure covering a year in the lives of these characters. Basically there are two timelines and our two narrators are in both timelines. They meet in 2009. Events during this starting point in the timeline lead up to the current day, July 19, 2010. July 19th marks some unknown disaster in NYC, sending both men on a long, hot trek home. The novel starts on July 19th in 2010, and then jumps back to 2009. At this point, you have to pay attention to the opening dates and who is talking, especially at the beginning, because the chapters alternate between the two first person narrators in both timelines. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear who is narrating and how the two stories are tied together.

Where I found the novel to be lacking is in the characters and the plot. While both male character are developed and clearly are deeply flawed men, the women are not well developed characters at all and come across as caricatures. From all appearances, Michael is a supreme jerk. Jenny comes across as notably unlikable and difficult to sympathize with. Paul has some odd obsessions, but there is also a glimmer of goodness in him. The same could be said for Rebecca, the most likeable character; she has some flaws but nothing abnormal. Basically we have two very disagreeable characters actively seeking an extramarital affair. Then we have both men trying to get home during the unnamed disaster. My final verdict is that Klein's writing is good enough that I will look for future novels by him, but perhaps avoid it if it features an affair.

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tin Man

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Penguin Publishing Group: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735218727

Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a highly recommended emotionally powerful story of first loves and a love triangle. It is about love, friendship, loss, and survival.

The first part of the narrative is set in 1996 and is told through Ellis Judd's point-of-view in the third person. Ellis is a 45-year-old widower who works the night shift in a car plant in Oxford in 1996. He is still mourning the death of his wife, Annie, five years earlier. Even before that, though, he is grieving his father forcing him to leave school and abandon all hope of becoming an artist years ago, right after his mother died. He is also grieving the loss of his friend, Michael. Ellis, Annie and Michael were inseparable, until Michael abruptly left for London.

For me this quote packed a powerful emotional reaction:
"Billy came out and saw him looking up with tears frozen before they could fall. And he wanted to say to Billy, I'm just trying to hold it all together, that's all.
He wanted to say that because he had never been able to say that to anyone, and Billy might be a good person to say it to. But he couldn't."
Have you ever been going through something extremely hard and wanted to tell someone "I'm just trying to hold it all together?" I know that feeling and anyone who has ever experienced something so hard and dark and overwhelming will immediately relate to Ellis' feelings.

The second part of the narrative is set in 1989 and is from the first person point-of-view of Michael's journal entries. As much as Ellis loved Annie, his friend Michael loved him. They met as 12-year-old boys and were inseparable as they helped and supported each other. Michael's story is that of a gay man facing the AIDS crisis as a former lover is dying, and it covers his return to his two friends in Oxford.

A copy of a Van Gogh sunflower painting, as indicated by the cover, also plays a role in the story. Ellis's mother loved it and won a copy in a raffle when pregnant with Ellis. She shared her love of art with Ellis and Michael.

There is no question that Tin Man is a beautifully written novel, eloquent and emotional. The complex relationship between the characters and the inner emotional lives of Ellis and Michael are explored, but not fully developed. The narrative is not linear, especially with Ellis, and jumps around in time and subject matter. Some of the gaps in the story and the timeline must be filled in through supposition by the reader. Occasionally these leaps were challenging to follow. Still, this is a superb and stunning novel that offers several memorable quotes. 4.5

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

The Favorite Sister

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll
Simon & Schuster: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501153198

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll is a recommended thriller for fans of reality based TV.  We know from the start that season 4 of Goal Diggers, the New York City based reality series that showcases entrepreneurial woman, results in murder. The question is why was Brett Courtney murdered and who did it?

On Goal Diggers all five of the female cast members compete with each other for audience popularity and a greater share of social media hype to stay on the show. Brett, the youngest cast member, is the owner of a spin studio franchise and quick to make it clear that being skinny does not mean being healthy. She's moving in with her girlfriend this season, which will surely up ratings. Returning cast members include: Stephanie Simmons, the oldest, is a bestselling author of erotic novels and the first black cast member; Jen Greenberg, the vegan owner of a juice bar line and health food guru; Lauren Bunn, a dating website creator and known as Lauren Fun! on the show. The latest addition to the show is Brett's older sister, Kelly, a single mother who runs Brett's ever expanding business empire.  Jesse is the network executive who controls the focus of the series and what will be highlighted. The focus for season four will be on the rift and resentment that is growing between Stephanie and Brett, former best friends.

The narrative is told through alternating first person accounts of what happened before and during the production of season 4. Excerpts from Jesse's interview with Kelly after Brett's murder open and close the book, and are also included a few times in-between the first person accounts. This clearly demonstrates how muddy the line between truth and fiction is in the reality TV show and real life. 

The start is slow as we are introduced to the woman, their lives, and getting a glimpse into what they are thinking or scheming. You will need to keep track of who is talking in each chapter until you get a grip on the characters. As events unfold with secrets revealed and lies exposed, it becomes clear that the tension is going to boil over and something bad is going to happen. There are humorous moments in The Favorite Sister and Knoll does manage a message about the reality TV obsession - the striving for a few more minutes of public fame, and the need to appear to be young and relevant in order to stay in the public spotlight. 

While very well-written, the problem with The Favorite Sister for me is that I simple couldn't muster the capacity to care about these women. They all seemed like caricatures of a type rather than real people. Perhaps it is because I don't watch reality TV shows and don't care about them. Also my lack of following pop culture, etc could have influenced how I related to the book. Knoll's gets points for the writing, the message she was trying to get across, and the ending, which was a surprise. I have a feeling that this novel will do much better with a younger reader (20s or 30s) and anyone who loves to watch reality shows like real housewives and... I can't even name any.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster via

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Crossing

The Crossing by Jason Mott
Park Row Books: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778330738

The Crossing by Jason Mott is a highly recommended tale about twins struggling to survive in a dying world.

When the Disease first started, it hit only the elderly. Once they got it, they just fell asleep and never woke up. Then the age of those who caught the Disease began to go lower and the recrimination over how or who started the Disease began, turning into a world-wide war. Now the world is in the 10th year of the Disease. Those who lead the war efforts are dying from it, while those who are actually drafted, fighting, and dying in the war are the young.

Tommy and Virginia are seventeen-year-old twins who only have each other. Their parents died when they were five and they have been in the foster system ever since. The twins are opposites. Virginia remembers everything, every word, every detail, in complete clarity - calling it the Memory Gospel - while Tommy doesn't recall much at all. Now Tommy has received a draft letter and the two are making a final desperate trip from Oklahoma to Florida to see the shuttle launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Their father was obsessed with Europa and Virginia is sure that the shuttle may be humankind’s last chance for survival. Their foster father, a police officer, is following them, determined to bring Tommy back to go to the military.

This is more a story of sibling relationships and  rivalry than a dystopian tale. It is set in a dying world, but the important part of the story is the interaction between Tommy and Virginia and how they relate to each other and the world. Virginia's disaffection for people and the Memory Gospel is an oddly creepy combination. She may remember everything and be the intelligent one, but she's also a bit off putting. She recounts in perfect recall the series of letters their father wrote to them, which, among other things, encouraged them to take care of each other.

The Crossing is an interesting viewpoint for a dystopian story, but perhaps not the best choice. I will readily admit to wanting to hear more about the Disease, more about the world wide war, more about the political ramifications and explanations for the plague that strikes the elderly and slowly works its way down the generations. Virginia is not really a likeable character and while it is compelling to see the struggles in the journey to Florida, her flashbacks and recollection of their father's letters takes away from the edginess and desperation of the odyssey.

The quality of the writing is excellent, as I expected. There was the potential for an even greater story here, but, still, I rather liked some of the revealing disclosures at the end which made the story much better for this reader.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Park Row Books via Netgalley.

How It Happened

How It Happened by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company: 5/15/18
eBook review copy; 688 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316293938

How It Happened by Michael Koryta is a highly recommended murder mystery.

The novel opens in Port Hope, Maine, with Kimmie Crepeaux confessing to Rob Barrett, an FBI investigator and interrogation specialist, how Jackie Pelletier and Ian Kelly died and where to find their bodies. She also names the killer - local respected caretaker Mathias Burke. Kimmie claims Mathias forced her and her friend Cass Odom to assist him. Kimmie tells Barrett everything that happened in exact details. The problem is Cass is dead from an overdose and the bodies can't be found where Kimmie swears they should be found. All of this increasingly points to her unreliability as a witness. Kimmie is a heroin addict who already has a reputation for committing petty crimes.

As the search for the bodies continues, Barrett's reputation is on the line. He spent summers in Port Hope with his grandfather, and apparently had an antagonistic relationship with the suspect Mathias Burk.  Barrett believes Kimmie, but when all the evidence points to her lying, his reputation and career suffer.  However, Jackie Pelletier's father, Howard, still wants answers and pleads with Barrett to resume his investigation.

In How It Happened Koryta has written a compelling psychological study and gripping murder mystery. This is a engrossing plot populated by well-developed characters. The quality of the writing is great; Koryta delivers expressive prose, and an unpredictable, intricate plot full of dark secrets. The character development is amazing. These are all wounded, flawed individuals who are struggling with their own secret inner turmoil and their personal backgrounds. This would be an excellent page-turning choice for summer reading.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company via Netgalley.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Crooked Staircase

The Crooked Staircase by Dean Koontz
Penguin Random House Publishing Group: 5/8/18
eBook review copy; 512 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780525483427
Jane Hawk Series #3

The Crooked Staircase by Dean Koontz is the very highly recommended third installment of the Jane Hawk series. What is this vexation that Koontz has heaped upon me? The series is NOT over yet! I was sure this third book would give closure to Jane's whole ordeal and all it did was ratchet up the tension even more. The first two books are The Silent Corner and The Whispering Room. 

Read this series if you love action adventure thrillers. More importantly, read the books in order for full enjoyment of the series as they are not stand-alone novels. The fourth book, The Forbidden Door, is expected to be released on October 9th.

So, I won't say a lot for fear of spoiling the series for new readers, but basically Jane has uncovered a far-reaching conspiracy that involves taking over the free will of millions of people through nanotechnology. Her husband Nick was a victim of the evil, secret faction, but the incidents of people being destroyed by the conspiracy is growing while Jane is trying to find a way to end it. Now she is trying to find a way to question Booth Hendrickson, a corrupt official high up in the Department of Justice. The problem is that Jane is now the most wanted person in America.  She has been indicted for espionage, treason, and murder. All this has done is made her even more careful and determined to end the group's insidious plans.

Jane Hawk is a compelling, fully realized female lead - she a great lead, period. She is intelligent, tough, fearless, and manages to stay so and keep her sanity during the surreal situation the conspiracy entails. Since she's former FBI, she has the training and skills in her background that she can use to assist her own personal investigation.

Koontz presents the action in short, quick chapters, and, yet again, I stayed up way-too-late reading. There is still so much action that finding a good stopping point when reading is almost  impossible and left me repeating the just-one-more-chapter mantra. the chapters alternate between the point-of-view of Jane and several different characters.  I was shocked when the book ended in a cliff hanger right in the middle of a huge development. I can barely wait for the next book in the series, The Forbidden Door.

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

The Perfectionists

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins: 5/8/18
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062652553

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester is a very highly recommended examination of the history, science, and work of precision engineers along with biographical sketches of some of the influential engineers that helped develop technology to take us from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age.

The early attention to precision, accuracy, and degrees of tolerance ushered in the the Industrial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, and the Technological Revolution. What truly changed the way things were made was the creation of a machine tool -  a machine to make a machine - along with standardized measurements. This allowed exact, multiple items to be made that worked identically in the machine application they were made for, thus ushering in the industrial revolution and assembly lines. All these machined parts must be potentially interchangeable one for any other. This potential for interchangeable parts requires precision in many areas: mass, density, hardness, temperature tolerance, length, height, depth, and width; measurable degrees of straightness, flatness, circularity, cylindricity, perpendicularity, symmetry, parallelism, and position - and there is even more to consider.

The man who can be said to be the father of precision and the Industrial Revolution is John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson. Some of the others whose contributions are covered are: Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, Joseph Whitworth, James Clerk Maxwell, Prince Albert, HonorĂ© Blanc, Eli Whitney, Henry Whittle, Henry Ford, Roger Lee Easton, Kintaro Hattori, and Thomas Jefferson, who saw the potential of machine tools and brought the idea to the USA, introducing the concepts that would allow manufacturing to take off.

Those who have read other nonfiction by Winchester (Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, Pacific, Atlantic, etc.) will appreciate this new educational and entertaining work that includes great stories along with scientific insight and his consistent attention to detail. As is expected, The Perfectionists is extremely well-written.  Winchester takes a subject that, well, could be considered dull, and might be in lesser hands, but he makes it a compelling, engrossing subject, entertaining while giving us the history and the innovations. This is written for average people, not necessarily engineers (although engineers will appreciate it), which means even I could follow along and understand the scientific importance. The Perfectionists includes Illustrations, a Glossary, Bibliography and an Index.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mercy Seat

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Grove Atlantic: 5/8/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802128188

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop is a very highly recommended historical fiction drama set in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era.

Set in 1943, The Mercy Seat follows the day of the midnight execution of Will Jones. Will has been convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman.  Winthrop follows multiple characters through the day and evening leading up to Will's execution. The third person accounts are told in short, dynamic chapters that rotate between all of their points-of-view and create a fully realized picture of the events leading up to Will's execution and this day.

Driving the electric chair across the state is Lane, a prison trustee who was convicted of murder, and Captain Seward, the loathsome prison guard who drinks steadily during the drive. Ora and Dale, who live by their gas station located at the cross roads, are struggling with secrets and grief. Father Hannigan struggles with his failing faith while trying to offer some comfort to Will. District Attorney Polly Livingstone, regrets his role in Will's conviction, but there were mitigating circumstances that only a few know about. Polly's wife, Nell, is determined to do something for Will. Polly and Nell's son, Gabe, wants to witness the execution. Eighteen-year-old Will sits in a cell in New Iberia awaiting his end, while only finding solace in thinking of Grace, the white girl he loved who killed herself after his arrest. And Frank, Will's father, is stuck at the side of a road trying to bring a headstone back for his son's grave, but his mule is too old to finish the job

All of the characters are complicated individuals with their own questions, convictions, and insecurities. Winthrop does an excellent job capturing the voices of her various characters to weave together a complete, heartbreaking, poignant and powerful story. Since all the characters are unique individuals with distinctive voices, it is clear what chapter is from which specific character's perspective. You will have to accept at the beginning, though, that you will be cycling through the various characters' voices in each subsequent chapter. It is not an arduous task, but you may find yourself thinking, "No! I want more of____!"

This is a finely crafted emotionally complex historical fiction novel about racism, injustice, and brutality and a gripping portrait of the Jim Crow South. It begs us to question what we accept as just and what we do when faced with the unjust. It is also a novel of fathers and sons, of loss and pain, of the inability to control events beyond your power. It is a painful novel to read, but it is also a powerful novel. Winthrop has presented a perfectly realized novel and portrait of injustice time in the historic South.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove Atlantic.

The Mars Room

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Scribner: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476756554

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is a highly recommended drama set in a California women’s prison.

Romy Leslie Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley because she killed a man. The man met her at The Mars Room, the strip joint in San Francisco where she worked,  and was stalking her so she had to kill him. Now her mother has custody of her son, Jackson, and she is settling into prison life. Romy has always lived her life in the margins of society, using drugs, prostitution, committing crimes, and her guilt in never in question.

The guilt of the women she is imprisoned with is never in question either. Kushner follows the lives of the women and the treatment they receive from the guards and each other.  She also explores all the details of life inside and how the women find a way to make their own society, of a sort.  Along with Romy's story, and that of other women at Stanville, the lives of several other characters are explored in chapters, including Gordon Hauser, a GED teacher assigned to Stanville and "Doc," a dirty LAPD cop convicted of murder and in the Sensitive Needs block of New Folsom Prison. There are also included parts of the journal of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

First, this is technically, a very well written novel.
It demonstrates the amount of research that went into writing it and captures the brutal reality of the system and how it often fails those living in poverty. So, while I would agree with all reviewers who feel that The Mars Room is a searing look at the lives of those born into poverty and demonstrates their struggles, even while turning to drugs and a criminal lifestyle, it also managed to get a bit wordy and off-track when adding in the stories of other people who were only marginally connect to Romy's story. The novel lacked a wee bit of focus, which made it lose some of its power.

My rating was going to be a simple recommended, until the ending, which I felt was perfect for the novel and made slogging through some if it worth the experience. When the focus is on Romy, her experiences, her story, her life, the novel does an exceptional job capturing the realities of her life, often eloquently. It is the extras that didn't significantly add to the totality of the novel for me.

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

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Fourth Sacrifice

The Fourth Sacrifice by Peter May
Quercus: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 512 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781681440866

The Fourth Sacrifice by Peter May is a recommended thriller and the sequel to The Firemaker.

On the eve of her departure for home, Dr. Margaret Campbell, a forensic pathologist from the United States, is asked to work with the Chinese police and conduct the autopsy of a beheaded man. The man, Yuan Tao, was a naturalized citizen of the United States and he was also apparently the fourth beheaded man in a string of ritual murders that could indicate the work of a serial killer. Margaret finds herself working with police Deputy Section Chief Li Yan, with whom she previously had a romantic relationship, and she is bitter at his perceived rejection of her. She doesn't know that Li was ordered to end his relationship with her. To further complicate matters archeologist Michael Zimmerman, as he introduces Margaret to the treasures of China, is making it clear to her that he is very interested in a relationship with her.

The plot mixes mystery, romance and history in the character driven narrative. The quality of the writing is good. May does do a great job setting the place and provides a lot of excellent information about and background for the Chinese culture. He provides the descriptions and background to create a total picture of China. Aside from the cultural references, there are little nit-picky details and lack of details about other topics that annoyed me. I could chose to set them aside and simply enjoy the story, which is predictable, but moves along quickly (when not trying to educate us about Chinese culture which does slow down the forward movement of the plot).

Since The Fourth Sacrifice is character driven, Margaret presents a bit of a problem, as she is a very unlikable character. Now, I haven't read the first novel, so perhaps she is more personable in that novel and the broken relationship is what drives her negative attitude. While I enjoyed this novel, it didn't leave me wanting to read the first one.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Quercus.

Everything That Follows

Everything That Follows by Meg Little Reilly
MIRA Books: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778364146

Everything That Follows by Meg Little Reilly is a recommended character driven novel.

It is finally the off-season in Martha’s Vineyard and Kat Weber, a glass artist, has just sold a large piece of art, so a celebration is in order. Kat, her boyfriend Sean Murphy, and their friends, including Hunter Briggs, head off to the local bar and begin drinking.  Around midnight they all leave the bar. Sean heads for home, but as Hunter and Kat do the same, the bartender, Kyle, runs up to join them and wants the party to continue. They don't know him, but the three decide to continue the party out on Hunter's boat.

The drinking continues and, as the weather begins to turn, some altercation happens,
resulting in Kyle falling in the water, but the actual events that led up to it are fuzzy due to their inebriated condition. Hunter and Kat head back under the assumption that Kyle will swim to shore. They will report the accident when they get back to shore. And, once they reach the shore they decide they'll do it in the morning, after they have had time to sober up.

But, when the morning comes, things change again.
Hunter Briggs is the son of US Senator Briggs and any scandal will not only hurt his Dad’s chance at reelection, but he just got out of rehab four months ago - boating under the influence will also send him to jail.  Nothing has been heard from Kyle, but surely he made it to shore, didn't he? Can Kat and Hunter live with their secret?

Once Kat and Hunter decide to not tell anyone about the accident, some other things happen and an annoying, grating character is introduced. We also get to know more about Kat, Hunter, and Sean. Sean is also an annoying grating character. Actually, in-between some very interesting scenes that have little to do with the dilemma, almost all of the characters can be annoying. 

Everything That Follows is a novel that will transition nicely for an easy-to-read summer novel. It is not a thriller or full of any heart-stopping action. Now, Reilly did a nice job introducing her moral dilemma and developing her characters, but she had a tough time plotting the story and keeping a smooth flow to the narrative. You do have to accept that the premise of the story, the moral dilemma, would exist in the first place.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.


2020 by Kenneth Steven
Arcade Publishing: 8/21/18
eBook review copy; 160 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781628728811

2020 by Kenneth Steven is a highly recommended dystopian novel set in Great Britain about a country divided, a terrorist attack, and an populist leader.

2020 is a short, but timely novel. The narrative follows a major terrorist attack on a train traveling between Edinburgh and London. The story is told through wildly different sources, interviews, witnesses, and news stories from a wide cross-section of society. The reader must then piece together the total picture of what happened and the aftermath through these first person accounts. The result is a disturbing picture of a terrorist account and the extreme response to it.

Apparently 2020 was written in 2015, but reads as if it were written today. The first person accounts are all insights into vastly different points-of-view and reactions to a horrible attack. Steven clearly captures the societal division in the UK, but this same division can be seen in other countries as well. Steven covers all sides of the public opinion, so this is a multi-sided focus. After reading 2020, I needed some thinking time - and I really believe that is the whole point of the novel. Yes, it is a novel, but even more it really is a modern day parable. The US version will be released in August.

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

The Perfect Mother

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy
HarperCollins Publishers: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062696793

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy is a highly recommended debut thriller/mystery featuring a group of new mothers.

The May Mothers are an informal group of Brooklyn based new moms (and one dad) whose children were all born in May. They meet twice a week in Prospect Park for camaraderie and to share their concerns. On the 4th of July three of the mothers, Nell Mackey, Colette Yates, and Francie Givens, along with Token, the nickname of the only male, plan an adult's only night out at a local bar. They persuade single mom Winnie Ross into attending by arranging for Nell’s nanny, Alma, to watch Winnie’s son, Midas.

The evening's drinking begins and before the night is over Winnie's son, Midas is missing, abducted from his crib. The police and media scrutiny uncovers all manner of secrets from Winnie's past and begin to focus on the mother's group too. Nell, Colette, and Francie don't believe the police are handling the investigation correctly, so they begin to do their own investigation into what happened. The novel unfolds during thirteen nerve wracking days as the police and the May Mother's conduct their own investigations.

As expected, the information that comes out about everyone during an investigation of a missing child can be startling and finger-pointing and speculation will abound. The chapters in the novel open with emails sent to the May Mothers by a website called The Village. The chipper rather self-satisfied emails all contain general advice on babies' milestones and raising children, which fits in nicely with the narrative based on these new mothers.

The Perfect Mother is an easy to read and follow novel and should engross most readers. I will admit I didn't care quite as much about the baby-raising-talk as a younger parent might, because baby-raising days are far behind me. What this means is that I focus more on the satisfaction I find from the quality of the writing, plot, character development, mystery, and the eventual conclusion. Molloy did quite good on all these points. The narrative does slow down a bit in the second half of the novel, right when you are desperate for more action, which may find some impatient readers skimming the novel for a quicker pace.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.