Friday, June 29, 2018

Don't Make Me Pull Over!

Don't Make Me Pull Over! by Richard Ratay
Scribner: 7/3/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501188749

Don't Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip by Richard Ratay is a highly recommended look at the historical and personal aspects of family vacation roadtrips.

As late as 1975 four in five Americans had never traveled by plane, so how did families travel then (and earlier) for their vacations? By car, of course! Family vacation roads trips are legendary and most (large) families who experienced these treks have the stories and quotes to back up their claims. In Don't Make Me Pull Over! Ratay, who focuses on his family's road trips in the seventies, and covers: the history of the development of interstate highways; the beginning of road trips and those who pioneered driving cross country; maps; speed limits; radar detectors;  CB radios; diversions along the way; eating on the road and drive-ins; gas stations; camping and motels; car styles and station wagons; seat belts and safety - to name a few topics.

Early family road trips, before portable DVD players, electronic games, etc, were an option, required a bit more work to entertain or keep the whole carload happy or at least content. My experience of family road trips started off earlier than Ratay's family trips. Of course many of us remember no ac or seat belts in cars and that it was the oil crisis of 1973 that started the 55 mph speed limit. And some of us had to learn to drive in a station wagon.

This is an imminently readable and enjoyable mix of history and personal recollections. Ratay does a nice job mixing light hearted nostalgia with the history and developments that the love of car trips encouraged. I appreciated the historical context along with the footnotes. Readers who have experience the family road trip will appreciate the historical context of many of the topics Ratay covers. It will also bring back some memories of road trips in your past. After you, perhaps, learn a historical fact or two, you will want to call family members and laugh about vacations in the past.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Generation Game

Generation Game by Sophie Duffy
Legend Times Group: 7/1/18 re-release
eBook review copy: 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781787198547

Generation Game by Sophie Duffy is a highly recommended family drama. My review copy is a re-release of the novel originally published in 2011.

The novel opens in 2006 with Philippa Smith, who is in her forties, giving birth to her baby girl. Her husband has left her for someone more exciting and she is alone. She and her daughter are being kept in the hospital a bit longer.  She is very concerned about her daughter, but, also deciding that there will be no secrets, she begins to tell her life story, starting from her birth in 1965. At this point the chapters alternate between her childhood and growing up, and her present concerns with her newborn.

Written from Philippa's first person point-of-view, we are introduced to her mother, Helena, and their life together. They leave London after her birth and move to Torquay. Helena is a single parent too, so their life isn't easy. Eventually they live in Bob's Sweet shop where Helena works - until she abandons Philippa to live with Bob. The chapters in the 1960s and on are all giving the names of British TV programs that relate in some way to Philippa's life during those years.

With incredible writing, that is at various times touching, funny, sweet, and sad, Duffy reminds us that family consists of those who care about you, whether you are related by blood or not. The chapters covering Philippa's childhood set in the 1960's and 70's are exceptional. Philippa is well developed as a character in her childhood and after that the time seemed to move a bit more quickly, but perhaps that was done purposefully in order to mirror time passing by faster as you get older. There are also a couple of surprising secrets Philippa reveals or is told at the end of the novel. The secrets do show why Philippa is telling her whole story, beginning to present day, as events happened and with no secrets.

It was engaging for me to recall where I was, my age, and what was happening during those years for me as Philippa discusses the news worthy events during her life. (As I was born before her it was no great stretch to do this unless the pop culture reference was distinctly British.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Legend Times Group.

Still Water

Still Water by Amy Stuart
Simon & Schuster: 5/8/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476790459

Still Water by Amy Stuart is a recommended psychological thriller that continues the story found in her first book, Still Mine (2016).

Clare O’Dey is helping PI Malcolm Boon track down missing women. (There is a backstory from the first novel that is mostly explained, or at least enough to follow this second novel.) She travels to the town of High River to discover the truth behind the disappearance of  Sally Proulx and her young son from the home of Helen Haines, a used-to-be secret refuge for abused women to hide. Now that Sally is missing, assumed to have jumped into the river, the police are there combing the area and the secret is out.

Clare shows up claiming to be an old friend of Sally's and begins to look into the investigation and disappearance. But Clare is highly suspicious of police detective Colin Rourke, who seems oddly obsessed with focusing on her personally. To complicate matters further, all the people Clare is running into at High River have secrets of their own and seem to be disconnected and hiding something.

There are some great qualities to the novel. Stuart captures the natural setting and the tense atmosphere quite well. The novel is well paced and will keep you reading. However, I think this second novel in the series might be better appreciated by those who enjoyed the first novel.

Clare is not particularly a likeable character, which means you may be struggling to like/trust her, especially because her relationship with Malcolm is weird and feels weird and weird is not always a good trait in your main protagonist. I really had a hard time believing that she would be a great choice to go undercover to find women who are trying to hide from exes. Perhaps the first book in the series would change my perception of her, but this second novel and the explanations it contains are all I have to go on. And her cover story to explain why she was there - laughable and wouldn't be believed for a second under the circumstances in the novel.

I can set aside misgivings if a plot is strong and compelling. Still Water starts out strong and Stuart had my attention (and a higher rating for the beginning). The writing is technically good, but, alas, the plot went downhill after the strong start and some eye-rolling began to happen as the novel progressed. Some of the things Clare said and did seemed peculiar or just plain wrong under the circumstances (which points back to questioning why she would be a good choice to do what she is doing). Rather than exciting unexpected twists, there were odd disclosures and new little developments that actually took away from the main narrative. 3 stars for the strong beginning and the potential

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Clock Dance

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
Penguin Random House: 7/10/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525521228

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is a very highly recommended story about defining moments in a woman's life. I love and adore Anne Tyler's writing and Clock Dance is a wonderful addition to her oeuvre.

The novel is broken into four parts, the four defining times in Willa Drake's life.  In 1967, Willa is an eleven-year-old girl whose abusive, volatile, and temperamental mother has decided to leave her complaisant husband and two daughters for a brief period of time, again. In 1977, she is a college coed whose boyfriend Derek wants to marry her and is meeting her parents for the first time. In 1997, she is forty-one, has two sons, and is newly widowed. And in 2017, she is married to Peter, a golf widow living in Arizona, and yearns to be a grandmother.  Clearly, Willa has chosen to follow her father's example and she is an appeaser in relationships, always catering to the whims of others and trying to please them.

In 2017 Willa receives phone call from a neighbor to her son's former girlfriend, Denise. The neighbor tells Willa that Denise has been shot in the leg and her nine-year-old daughter, Cheryl, and dog, Airplane, needs someone else to stay with them. The neighbor got Willa's phone number from Denise's home, and called her assuming she is Cheryl's grandmother. Willa, always helpful, agrees to fly out to stay with Cheryl in the blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood, and Peter begrudgingly makes plans for them both to go.

As expected the writing is simply extraordinary. Tyler does an excellent job taking ordinary, average people and portraying them in totality, good and bad, strengths and flaws. Willa is a wonderful, fully realized character. I understood and empathized with her. Time does seem to dance by and as you look back on your life, there are defining moments along the way, but it is never to late to make a change. Tyler's novels and the characters she creates to inhabit them are always quietly phenomenal. They unassumingly live in the real world, face real situations, and do their best based on the circumstances. This is a novel about family, keeping your own council, second chances, self-discovery, and, ultimately, hope. I absolutely love Clock Dance.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House as part of the First to Read program.

It All Falls Down

It All Falls Down by Sheena Kamal
HarperCollins Publisher: 7/3/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062565778

It All Falls Down by Sheena Kamal is the recommended sequel to the thriller The Lost Ones (2017).

Nora Watts only knew one parent growing up, her father, until he committed suicide. Now Nora is willing to open up her emotions and confront  her past. Sam Watts grew up in Detroit, so Nora travels from Vancouver to the violent streets of Detroit in a search for information about her late father. Nora travels there and, instead of finding answers, she finds and even more complicated story. Then, when it appears that someone has targeted her and may be trying to kill Nora, she wonders how close is she to uncovering information that someone is trying to hide.

Back in the Pacific Northwest, private investigator Jon Brazuca is looking into the overdose death of a billionaire Bernard Lam,'s pregnant mistress, Clementine. His investigation uncovers an opiate ring and a connection to Nora, one that may get her killed, but he can't get a hold of her to warn her.

This is a sequel and the first thing I would suggest is that you read the first novel, The Lost Ones, before It All Falls Down. Kamal assumes you have much more background information than a first time reader will have. I had to make some suppositions about what happened before in order to follow this plot. (I may have guessed incorrectly in a few instances.) Don't be like me - read this series in order. And it appears that it will be a series, or at least a trilogy.

This is a good thriller - gritty, dark atmospheric. The plot seemed full of holes to me, but that could be from my lack of knowledge of the first novel. The information Nora uncovers is very interesting, but, again, there are other parts of the plot that simply just seemed confusing. Mentions of Nora's relationship to her daughter, Bonnie, is a good example of this. Without knowing the intricacies of the relationship, it left me a bit lost. The final thought: read this series in order.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publisher.

Remind Me Again What Happened

Remind Me Again What Happened by Joanna Luloff
Algonquin Books: 6/26/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781565129221

Remind Me Again What Happened by Joanna Luloff is a recommended debut novel about friendship and memories.

Would you choose the same lover and friend if you lost all of your past shared memories with them?

Claire is a journalist who has awakened in a hospital room in Florida. She has no memory of who she is and how she got there. Apparently she was bitten by a mosquito and contracted Japanese encephalitis while on an assignment overseas in India. She was lucky enough to survive, but part of the unlucky group of survivors who have lasting damage to their nervous systems. She suffers from seizures and a complete loss of memory. Her husband, Charlie, and best friend, Rachel, have flown in and brought photos, letters, and memories to help her.

Once she is able to leave the hospital, she moves back to the house in Vermont with Charlie. Here Rachel and Charlie go through boxes of her things trying to help her remember who she is and her relationship to both of them. Claire, Charlie, and Rachel all shared a house years ago when they were in grad school. They have a long documented relationship with each other. So why does Claire have an uneasy feeling that the whole story isn't being told and that there are secret resentments being unsaid?  A picture emerges that she is an independent and fearless woman, who travels overseas and does whatever it takes to get her story written.

The novel unfolds through the alternating points-of-view and stories of the three main characters. With Claire's memory gone, do the three have any reason to continue a relationship with each other? Claire was distancing herself from Charlie before her illness. Rachel ruminates that it was Claire who led the continuing friendship between the three. While most long-term relationships require much forgiveness and forgetting of flaws, the myriad of details about each character's life make it clear that Charlie and Rachel haven't forgotten or forgiven past grievances and they are full of resentment. They aren't confronting Claire, but she senses it. Will Charlie and Rachel be able to help them all find a way to continue their relationship without any input from Claire?

Basically the novel is well-written and the characters are all developed as individuals. For a rather short novel, however, it felt  a bit longer because it is bogged down by all the backstory of the relationship between the three and you really begin to wonder why they remained friends. You may also find yourself secretly encouraging Charlie and Rachel to be honest and tell Claire the truth and help her truly remember her life.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Algonquin Books.

The Possible World

The Possible World by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz
Scribner: 6/26/18
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501166143

The Possible World by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz is a highly recommended emotional novel that deals with loss and the bonds between people.

In Providence, Rhode Island, a six-year-old boy, Ben, witnesses the aftermath of a brutal multiple murder, including that of his mother, while at a birthday party. When found alive and uninjured in the carnage, Ben insists on being called Leo, but otherwise remembers nothing. He is traumatized and almost mute. The police are hoping he can remember something about the crime, but for now he is sent to the pediatric psych unit.

Dr. Lucy Cole is an emergency room doctor who checked Ben over when he came in and later realizes that he is the son of a colleague who was murdered. She is perpetually overworked and dealing with turmoil in her personal life. Lucy finds herself thinking of Ben and continues to visit him.

Clare is an elderly woman living in a nursing home. She is lucid and doing well, but she is about to turn one-hundred-years-old.  Clare has carried her life story and it's many secrets for a long time, but may finally feel like it is time to tell her story to a new resident.

The Possible World is well written and the characters are fully developed and complicated. The narrative rotates between the main three characters, Ben, Lucy, and Clare, and later a fourth, a young boy from Clare's past named Leo. The thoughts, emotions, and the lives of these people are explored and revealed, culminating in a reunion of sorts. It is a very compelling novel and will hold your attention throughout.

I had two qualms with the novel. The first is the myriad of ER details Lucy shares. This make sense, she is an ER Dr. as is the author Liese O'Halloran Schwarz, but I wasn't reading this as a medical novel and soon grew a bit weary of all the ER action. Readers are also required to believe/accept the idea that reincarnation is real and that Ben used to be a boy named Leo. It felt too contrived for me to totally accept this plot pretense and the final scene. However, the quality of the writing is never in dispute.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

What My Sister Knew

What My Sister Knew by Nina Laurin
Grand Central Publishing: 6/19/18
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455569045

What My Sister Knew by Nina Lauri is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Andrea "Addie" Warren has just been in a car accident and the circumstances surrounded it are all hazy. Did she really see a man by the side of the road? At the hospital, her foster mother shows up to take Addie to her home, not Addie's, and it becomes clear that something else is going on, something Addie doesn't have a clue about. At her foster mothers she manages to catch a TV news clip and sees that her twin brother, Eli, is back in the news. What did Eli do this time?

Eli killed their mother and stepfather by burning down their house fifteen years ago, when they were both twelve. He was locked up, and when he was finally released it was under the condition that he does not contact Addie. A sensational book was written about the horrific crime so Eli's name is relatively well known. Now a woman has been found murdered in his apartment and the police are searching for him. Naturally, they are interested in talking to Addie too.

The narrative switches between current events and the past. Included before some chapters are excerpts from the true crime book written about Eli. These excerpts along with Addie's recollections about her childhood help create a picture of the childhood of the twins before the murder. We also learn about Addie's current life and the struggles she has been trying to overcome. Do the twins really have a connection, as the police suspect?

The writing is quite good and Laurin provides some twists and surprises along the way. Perhaps you will guess the twists, but, honestly, it's my opinion that Laurin wants you to fear Eli is back to torment Addie. Why else would she have Addie see a mysterious figure during the car crash right at the opening? Laurin does spend some time developing her characters, especially Addie, which adds a depth to the novel and helps intensify the suspense. This is a satisfying, albeit somewhat disturbing, thriller. Addie's scrambling in the middle might go on a tad too long, but, ultimately, What My Sister Knew held my attention and the ending was satisfying.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Shepherd's Hut

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 6/19/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374262327

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton is a highly recommended novel that is emotional, disturbing, and brutal but eloquently written.

Jaxie Clackton, 15, a physically and emotionally abused young man flees the small town where he lives after seeing his father’s accidental death. Jaxie takes a small amount of food, a rifle and a water jug and then starts out on foot through the back county of Western Australia, setting a course toward where his cousin Lee lives. He loves her and thinks they can escape somewhere together after he hides out for a while. After hiking for days, starving and thirsty, he comes to an abandoned cabin where he takes shelter. When exploring one day, hoping for water, he sees a shepherd's hut and meets exiled priest Fintan MacGillis. Jaxie must decide if he can trust MacGillis. The two eventually forge an unlikely bond until Jaxie discovers something nearby that could threaten the safety of both of them.

This is Jaxie's first person account and Winton writes in Jaxie's vernacular, slang and all which might throw some readers for a loop. Most of the words you will be able to figure out through the usage.  As he talks about his father's cruelty and the beatings and then his acting out, your heart will break - and then you'll wonder why the neighbors in the small town didn't take action. It will physically hurt when he talks about his mom, who passed away from cancer, and her not leaving her husband despite the beatings... and Jaxie puzzles out why she stayed. Jaxie thinks he is tough, has acted out, because he's had to be tough.

Winton's ability to portray Jaxie and MacGillis is absolutely amazing. The writing is impressive and eloquent. The story is troubling, full of pain and suffering. This is a story of damaged people respecting each other's secrets and trying to form a very unlikely friendship. For those who need to know, there is blood. There is catching and butchering animals. There is swearing and bad grammar as this is Jaxie's voice. These are two social outcasts working together. It is the story of a boy becoming a man.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Melody

The Melody by Jim Crace
Knopf Doubleday: 6/19/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385543712

The Melody by Jim Crace is a recommended allegorical tale about ageing, urban renewal, family conflict, and grief.

Alfred Busi is a famous singer in his sixties living in his family's villa overlooking the sea in unnamed town. He still occasionally performs, but mostly for small crowds. He is still mourning the recent death of his wife. His town is going to honor him the next evening, when he is attacked by an intruder. He thinks it was a wild feral child while his sister-in-law, who comes over to bandage him up, thinks it was a cat. This attack and a news account of the attack, along with pictures of Busi in bandages, sets off a chain of events, including a drive to rid the town of the poor after Busi was subsequently mugged. Busi also has to handle his nephew who wants him to sell his villa so seaside condos can be built on the land.

First, the prose  is distinct and startling at times, with unique descriptions. His first attacker is described as something fierce and dangerous, wild and innocent, with smooth skinned that smells like potato peel. It creates a visceral image that sticks in your mind. The setting the rich against the poor was certainly a morality tale for our time. The narrator is removed from the story, simply telling the story, until we learn his identity later in the book. Crace is, as he describes himself, a fabulist.

But, even with parts that were amazing, I'm going to admit that this was a tough story for me to get through. There were parts that were intriguing and brilliant, but other sections simply didn't hold my attention. I appreciated the reflections on grief and the loss of his wife.  I wanted to love The Melody, but it ended up just being an average novel with bits of brilliance.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder

The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder by Sarah J. Harris
Touchstone: 6/12/18
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501187896

The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder by Sarah J. Harris is a highly recommended mystery about an autistic boy with synesthesia who is certain he has done something wrong.

Jasper Wishart, 13, lives in a world defined by color for sounds, words, days, and numbers. While he can't recognize people's faces, he does recognize their colors through their voices. When Bee Larkham moves in across the street, the first thing he notices is her color, which is so close to his deceased mom's color. Bee brings new colors with her, in her music and her life, and, even more importantly, she sets up bird feeders to encourage the parakeets roosting in the tree in her yard. Jasper, who paints the colors her sees, is overjoyed by the beautiful swirling colors the parakeets bring to his world. He uses binoculars to watch them.

Jasper also keeps detailed notebooks about the parakeets, the colors he sees and the people, via their colors, that visit Bee Larkham. Bee may have brought color to the neighborhood for Jasper, but she also brought noise complaints from angry neighbors. We know from the start of the book that Bee Larkham was murdered, and Jasper sees her murder as "ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged silver icicles." He is in the police station being questioned with his father, and his father has brought in many of his notebooks. Jasper is sure he is responsible for her murder, and his dad is covering up for him. He is going back, through the colors in his memory and paintings that tell the story of the parakeets and Bee, to tell us what happened.

The narrative alternates between present day and the past, leading up to Bee Larkham's murder, and is told through Jasper's first person unique perspective. The writing is excellent and Harris uses Jasper's synesthesia to provide the details to tell the story. Readers must be determined to stick with the narrative and Jasper's untrustworthy memories, as well as follow the colors Jasper assigns to various sounds and what he notices. It isn't always easy.

The writing is excellent and Jasper is an interesting character. With the narrative jumping between time periods and with the detailed color assignments from Jasper, the ideal reader will likely be willing to invest the time to follow his colors to get to the truth and have a good color vocabulary/visual identification. I know my colors, shades, tints and tones, so this wasn't difficult for me, but might be a struggle for some readers. It was worth it to get to the end and uncover the mystery.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Touchstone.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson
Park Row Books: 6/12/18
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778319849

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson is a recommended novel about family and secrets.

Miranda Brooks hasn't seen or heard from her beloved Uncle Billy since her twelfth birthday when Billy and her mom, his sister, had a falling out. Before that day, Billy was always present in her life, if a bit inconsistent due to his job as a seismologist. She loved following the clues in the scavenger hunts he created for her. She loved spending time in Prospero Books, the bookstore he owned. Miranda was devastated when he stopped all contact with her.

Now sixteen years later Miranda is a history teacher living in Philadelphia and she has just taken the big step of moving in with her boyfriend. When she learns that her Uncle Billy has died, she decides to return to Los Angeles for the funeral. Once there she discovers that Billy has left her Prospero Books and one final scavenger hunt. Miranda takes on both the failing bookstore and the scavenger hunt, which both reveal family secrets.

The writing and story are easy to follow in The Bookshop of Yesterdays and include many literary references in the clues. The result is a nice relaxing choice for summer vacation reading. There are plenty of quirky characters that Miranda meets along the way and some family conflicts that need to be resolved. The big family secret is relatively easy to figure out from the start, which makes the novel more about Miranda's journey and the clues she follows that lead her to the truth. This predictability made the final scavenger hunt feel like it went on for far too long, especially since the references in the clues won't be that obvious for many readers.

Life intervened before I finished writing this review and during that time my final rating changed. This is a solid 3 stars, maybe 3.5. The fact that the easily discerned truth was hidden from her never seems to be a reasonable or logical choice for adults to make, which, in turn, makes the scavenger hunt seem rather pointless. Sure it gives her one last connection to Billy, but a heartfelt letter explaining everything would have also worked. Also most adults would have figured it all out earlier, or at least have had a good idea.

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Freeze-Frame Revolution

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
Tachyon Publications: 6/12/18
eBook review copy; 192 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616962524

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts is a very highly recommended, dark, hard science fiction novel.
"Sixty-six million years, by the old calendar. That’s how long we’ve been on the road."

The construction ship Eriophora was built inside an asteroid and is controlled by AI called the Chimp. The crew of the Eriophora, referred to as spores, were all raised specifically to spend their lives building wormhole gates throughout space to make interstellar travel more accessible. They spend most of their time in suspended animation and are awake one day in a million. At the onset of their mission they all believed in it completely.

Sunday Ahzmundin has a friend, Lian, who is beginning to question their purpose and her role in it.  Sunday is also looking for a missing crew member. The problem is that no one is awake for long, the members of the teams awake changes, and the Chimp, who is looking out for what is best for you, sees through your eyes and hears through your ears. Then Sunday begins to uncover secrets and pieces together plans for a mutiny that has been cleverly hidden from the Chimp.

This is an exceptional hard science fiction story that is part of a larger collection, The Sunflower cycle, which currently consists of The Island, Hotshot, Giants, and The Freeze-Frame Revolution. (You can go to Watt's Website to read them.) The Freeze-Frame Revolution reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in some ways, especially with the all-knowing and seeing AI, but this isn't a direct comparison by any means. Watts demonstrates that he is an outstanding science fiction author who can create psychologically complex characters and place them in equally unique complicated environment and set it all in a compelling narrative. While it is classified as a novella, The Freeze-Frame Revolution packs the punch of a well written, tightly constructed novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tachyon Publications.

The Mutual UFO Network

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin
Dzanc Books: 6/12/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781945814495

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin is an excellent, very highly recommended collection of twelve masterfully written short stories. Martin has insight into the desperate lives of ordinary people, people just trying to do the best they can while dealing with emotional minefields and long-held resentments. Some of these characters have been living with their resentments and tightly withheld anger for decades. For others the tension is a more recent occurrence. Some are lying to themselves in an attempt to deal with their reality. Evey story in this outstanding collection has a visceral impact and showcases deep insight into relationships, families, and the human condition. The Mutual UFO Network is an exceptional collection of short stories and is one of the best collections I've read this year.

The Mutual UFO Network:
A young man's parents have separated and he recounts the last time he sees his father and his relationship with both parents. His parents operated a mail-order business called The Mutual UFO Network, which sold digitally altered photos to ufo believers.
Across the Street
Parents buy a house for their son, Jim, to live in on his own after years of living in group homes, institutions and with his parent. The new neighbors discover his peculiarities.
Love Field
Belle, and older woman, shares her private feelings about her relationship with her neighbors, The Silvers, their eight-year-old daughter Naomi, and the new baby.
The Last Civilized House
Ancil and Lucy have been married for fifty-five years, when resentment and anger from an incident years ago resurfaces.
Belly Talk
Jackie, a boy living with a disability, has a talent for ventriloquism. One day he finds out about a classmates home life.
Bad Family
Miss Chang, who recalls coming-of-age in China in the time of Chairman Mao, now lives in Nebraska and attends the YMCA dance class that her ex-husband teaches with his new wife, Polly.
White Dwarfs
Frank’s wife mysteriously disappeared, leaving her car along the side of the road, but it is unclear if indicates a crime or something else.
Real Time
Del is a gullible man who tends to give money to con artists and makes worthless investments. His wife Liz, has no hesitation to let him know how she feels about it.
Drunk Girl in Stilettos
Wink and Benny, good ol' boys,  pick up a drunk girl who is hitch hiking and take her to her father's funeral.
A Man Looking for Trouble
Roger, a sixteen year old, recalls when his uncle Bill Jordan, came home from Vietnam in 1972. Bill soon figured out that Annie, Roger's mother, was having an affair with the neighbor, Harold Timms, something his father, R.T.,  has chosen to overlook.
The Dead in Paradise
Maizy tells her husband, James, that they should be on the look-out for a third omen after the first two. James has been making bad decisions for a while now, like gambling away money given for their ill daughter and involved himself in making crystal meth, but he wants to change.
Dummies, Shakers, Barkers, Wanderers
Mona and Wright who raise Clydesdales, told their adult son Gary, an addict, to either get help or leave home. He chose to leave and they haven't seen him in years. Then, when they have a new foal in trouble, Gary returns, helping them, but also needing their help.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Dzanc Books.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Something in the Water

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman
Penguin Random House: 6/5/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524797188

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman is a highly recommended debut psychological thriller.

The novel opens with Erin digging a grave on October 1st. Then we jump back to Friday July 8th, for the whole story and the reason for that grave. Erin Locke, a documentary filmmaker, and Mark Roberts, an investment banker, are getting married. In spite of the fact that Mark was recently fired from his job, they planned to go ahead and enjoy a dream honeymoon on the tropical island of Bora Bora. While out scuba diving they discover something in the water, a canvas bag. The contents have the potential to either dramatically change their lives, or threaten their safety. It will certainly test their moral compass. Erin and Mark need to be careful and clever to maneuver their way through the ensuing chain of events.

Steadman's novel features Erin telling the story of what happened that lead to her digging a grave.  While we know what Erin is thinking and doing, it is also easy to see that she is making some bad decisions and may be an unreliable narrator. Erin isn't entirely likeable. Mark also comes across as untrustworthy. But, Something in the Water isn't really a novel that focuses on character development as much as the motives, actions, and reactions of the characters.

The writing is good. There are some universal truths in the plot - greed, mistrust, suspicion, lies -  that are nicely integrated in to the story. The novel does feature some twists, but none of them are startlingly unexpected and astute readers will see most of them coming. What Steadman does do well is providing a gripping opening. Then, after a rather slow, uneven set up, the narrative again becomes more compelling and picks up the pace and the intrigue for the final half of the novel. Something in the Water is a notable debut novel and Steadman will be someone to watch for future releases.

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Us Against You

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books: 6/5/18
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501160790

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman is a very highly recommended novel about a town, its citizens, and a game. This is an excellent novel -  absolutely outstanding. It will be on my list of top ten novels of the year.

Us Against You
is a sequel to Beartown, but it can be appreciated on its own. Personally, I would read Beartown first because it is an exceptional novel. "Try to make it sound like it’s just a sports club collapsing, even though sports clubs never really do that. They just cease to exist. It’s the people who collapse." This isn't just a novel about hockey, although the game plays a large role in the narrative. Even if you don't know anything about hockey, keep reading because there are insights into much larger truths.

"[P]eople will always choose a simple lie over a complicated truth, because the lie has one unbeatable advantage: the truth always has to stick to what actually happened, whereas the lie just has to be easy to believe... [M]any of our worst deeds are the result of us never wanting to admit that we’re wrong. The greater the mistake and the worse the consequences, the more pride we stand to lose if we back down. So no one does."

Beartown is a small down-on-its-luck Swedish town home to hardworking people who are obsessed with hockey and have always taken great pride in their team. Now it looks like their team might be eliminated. It's bad enough that many of their senior players are now play for Hed, their rival. Feelings are still raw across the town after the crisis from last year. A surprising new coach has come to Beartown who plans to build a winning team, and the team is going to be built on the talents of four untested teenagers. A despicable politician is manipulating people behind the scenes. The situation is complicated. All of the people involved are imperfect. "It's just a game, two teams, sticks and pucks. Us against you, doesn't that say it all?"

Backman's writing style always makes me think of a fable, a folk story. I've said it before and it still stands. The writing is rich, masterful, and admirable. There are moments of great failure and overwhelming compassion, scenes of desperate cruelty and sly humor, and people with a malicious bent and others with a quiet wisdom. The empathetic narrative explores love, personal sacrifice, and the vital importance of family and friendships. This exceptional novel is part character study, part morality tale, part coming-of-age story, part family drama, part redemptive tale and totally wonderful. All of Backman's novels would be wonderful for book club discussions. 

"Our spontaneous reactions are rarely our proudest moments. It’s sad that a person’s first thought is the most honest, but that often isn’t true. It’s often just the most stupid. Why else would we have afterthoughts?"

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

When We Disappear

When We Disappear by Lise Haines
Unbridled Books: 6/5/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781609531478

When We Disappear by Lise Haines is a highly recommended novel about a disintegrating family.

It is 2007 and Mona's family has fallen on hard times. Her father, Richard, lost his job and now has left his family (Liz, his wife, and daughters Mona, 17, and Lola, 3) in Illinois to go to New Jersey for a new job. Now Liz, a sculptor, needs to curtail her art to work to support the girls. Lola is young, but Mona is old enough to resent her father leaving without saying goodbye. But then, Mona stopped listening to her father's stories years ago. Now he sends money, but it is never enough. He sends postcards to Lola and letters to Mona. Mona lives through her photography, starts and affair with an older photographer, and rejects her father's stories.

The narrative switches between chapters from Mona and Richard's points-of-view. We know how both characters feel and what they are both experiences. We see the whole family falling apart, struggling, yet not openly talking to each other and telling the truth about what is going on in all their lives. Part of Mona's anger and resentment toward her father goes back years ago to an incident, an accident, that happened when she was with her father and something they never discussed with her mother.

The writing is excellent in When We Disappear, and Haines captures both Mona's and Richard's individual inner voices with perfection. Both Mona and Richard are well-developed characters and we can clearly see their individual efforts to endure their pain and how they are trying to cope with their situations. Mona's photography helps sustain her and she tries to be strong for her mother and Lola. Richard is hurting more than he is admitting. This is a very emotional novel, however, it is difficult to see these wounded struggling people close themselves off from each other for much of the book and not sharing the reality of what they are all going through.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Unbridled Books.