Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Distance Home

The Distance Home by Paula Saunders
Penguin Random House: 8/7/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525508748

The Distance Home by Paula Saunders is a very highly recommended family drama which is beautifully written while brilliantly depicting a highly dysfunctional post World War II family living in West River South Dakota.

René narrates the story of her contentious childhood in South Dakota, beginning on the plains next to the Missouri River in Fort Pierre, and later in the foothills of the Black Hills in Rapid City. Set in the 1950'and 60's, her parents, Al and Eve, married young and lived in Al's parents' basement, where Leon and René were born. Al is a cattle trader, which means he spends more time away from his family than at home, so Eve must make a life for her children. She also fights to overcome the blatant favoritism Al and his mother show to René, by favoring and fighting for sensitive Leon, who is mocked and treated harshly by Al and his mother - first for his stutter and later for dancing. Eve signed Leon up for a tap dancing class, and later ballet, when he showed a natural aptitude for dance, which Al cannot accept. When René shows the same natural ability for dance, she is applauded and praised. The battle lines are clearly set, with Eve defending Leon and Jayne and Al favoring René.

When the family moves to Rapid City, the gulf between parents and children widens and worsens. The parents are constantly battling each other when Al comes home. His disdain for Leon is as obvious as his favoritism for René. Sides are clearly drawn: Eve defends Leon; Al prefers René. Al even ignores Leon's many accomplishments playing baseball and never attends a game. The epic battles and the abusive punishments doled out to Leon result in both Leon and René being diagnosed with PTSD as adults. Leon turns to self-destructive behavior, while René tries to excel at everything.

The novel follows their abusive childhoods through René's narrative. Occasionally inserted in the story is information from future discussions shared between Leon and Rene as adults. They provide a glimpse into the fallout from their childhood and the destruction that resulted. Families are complicated organisms and Saunders clearly captures this in The Distance Home. It has been said that the novel draws on Saunders's own family history, which makes perfect sense because the turmoil, emotions, and the prevailing attitudes of that period in American history is captured so completely.

The writing is exquisite in this well-written debut novel and the narrative is compelling. I was totally immersed in this family drama and the struggle both Leon and René faced with their combative parents making it almost a conflict between them. (This is a testament to the wisdom of never, ever, picking or having a favorite child.)  The conflicts are realistically portrayed with brutality, but also result in compassion for the characters. The Distance Home is totally set during the time period indicated and in South Dakota as it was at that time. (Small soapbox: To judge this or any novel based on current societal and political measurements is unfair. What is the worth of providing a historically accurate setting if reviewers judge it based on modern sentiments rather than being pleased over the progress we have made and continue to make.)

The character who is most fully developed is René, especially since she is the narrator and is telling the story. Leon's character is also fairly well-developed through her eyes. Jayne's character is not fully formed, but there can often be a disassociation between older and younger siblings. Between the parents, Eve is the most fully realized character, but then she was also the main parent who was with the children daily while Al was usually traveling. Saunders did an excellent job depicting the conflicting emotions René felt toward her mother, and the final resolution of them was touching.

This is truly one of the better novels I've read this year and it is a notable debut novel. It is immediately going on my list of contenders for the top ten novels of the year. Hopefully Saunders will be writing another novel soon.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Book of Ralph

The Book of Ralph by Christopher Steinsvold
Medallion Press: 8/9/16
eBook review copy; 416 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781942546344

The Book of Ralph by Christopher Steinsvold is a highly recommended first contact story.

When a message appears on the moon saying "Drink Diet Coke" and the Coca-Cola corporation denies all responsibility, Markus West is asked to help with the Congressional investigation into the lunar advertisement. Coca-Cola is found non-culpable for the ad, but the world is still a-buzz over the audacious ad. Markus is called back to help when, exactly a year later, a giant can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup is floating above the front lawn and planning to land at the White House.

After it lands, out of the can jumps someone in a space suit waving the American Flag to the Rocky theme song. While most Americans think the whole fiasco is another promotional stunt, this time perpetrated by the Campbell's Soup Company, the giant can is really a space ship and Ralph is an alien who is trying to arrive undercover and warn us of an impending invasion by malevolent extraterrestrials who wish us harm.

Once ensconced away to a secret hiding place, Ralph freely shares some information about the evil aliens coming (from the planet Kardash.... which makes them Kardashians - one of the better bits of humor). During a large part of the plot Ralph shares his thoughts about a host of philosophical topics with Markus. And then the bad aliens arrive.

The novel moves along quickly, with humor tucked into the narrative throughout, and most readers are going to keep reading during the less-than-exciting discussions in order to find out what happens when the Kardashians arrive to spread chaos. It's not that Ralph's philosophical discussions are tedious or boring, they are insightful, but when you are waiting for the bad guys, well, you tend to race through the slow stuff. The novel does take a dark turn once they do arrive.

The writing is good and the narrative will hold your attention. There are several funny scenes and they will help you through the dark ones. At the end it did feel more like a vehicle for the author to share his thoughts and worldview with readers. I suppose that is the case with most novels, but it just felt much more obvious here, perhaps because it was set in a first contact sci-fi story. Don't necessarily allow that to stop you from reading because it is, on the whole, an enjoyable, thoughtful story and the evil aliens should give most readers pause in the way they try to cause chaos on Earth.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Medallion Press.

As Wide as the Sky

As Wide as the Sky by Jessica Pack
Kensington: 7/31/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781496718167

As Wide as the Sky by Jessica Pack is a recommended, introspective novel about a woman dealing with the aftermath of a violence inflicted by her deceased son.

Amanda Mallorie's son, Robbie, has just been put to death after being convicted for a mass shooting at a mall four years earlier. She is questioning her every action and trying to reconcile the man who killed others to the son she lovingly raised. She has been her son's only support in the last four years, as the doctors tried to get his medication adjusted and while Robbie refused any more appeals to his sentence. Now she is planning to move on with her own life while simultaneously and continuously recalling events of the past.

While finishing the final bits of packing for her move near her daughter in another state, she opens up a box that was in Robbie's room. It is full of the flotsam and jetsam of a much younger boy, before all the troubles began. In the box she finds a class ring that doesn't belong to Robbie, and, in fact, belonged to someone older. How did Robbie come to possess this item and why would he keep it? Amanda decides to search for the owner and return the ring.

Time stamps open each chapter and the extremely slow moving plot unfolds through the voices of multiple characters. Amanda is the main character and the novel intensely focuses on her constant introspection and self-examination.  All of her soul searching and reflecting about Robbie's past became tiresome. Amanda needs some serious counseling, and beyond the kind she mentioned (How does that make you feel? Write apology letters...) but some real talk about consequences and boundaries and how she is not responsible for another person's actions - even those of a son she raised.

Many of the chapters focus on how Robbie's shooting affected numerous other people. I couldn't help but wonder if the focus of the plot needed to be tightened up a bit. Is this Amanda's story about how she is dealing with her son's actions and any culpability she might shoulder or is it about how Robbie's violence touched many other lives? Or is it about Amanda's reflections, seeking closure, and looking for the owner of the ring? Perhaps it might have helped if, rather than giving many short chapters to those struggling with the aftermath of Robbie's violence, Pack allowed Amanda to keep working through how his actions hurt so many others without having the reader hear from them.  Some of the characters were necessary to follow - but not all of them.

The writing is good. This is not an awful book, although I will freely admit that the constant introspection from all characters began to grate. The ending seemed far-fetched to me, but perhaps those who like romance novels will appreciate it more.

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses by Simon Rich
Little, Brown and Company: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316468893

Hits and Misses: Stories by Simon Rich is a very highly recommended humorous collection of eighteen short stories.
The various stories in this collection run the gamete from hilarious to satirical, from absurd to insightful, from audacious to circumspect. In the final analysis, however, they are all entertaining, while simultaneously pointing out some absurdities or proclivities of the human condition (especially related to writers, media, film work and even when the main protagonist isn't human) in a humorous manner. I thoroughly enjoyed every story in this collection. They were all hits for me.

The Baby - A novelist begins competing with his unborn child for literary recognition.
Riding Solo: The Oatsy Story - Paul Revere's horse reveals the true story.
The Foosball Championship of the Whole Entire Universe - Two brothers are in an uneven competition where only one can be named the ultimate winner. 
Birthday Party - A man who takes a corporate job is confronted by his former selves over his choices.
The Book of Simon - Simon's life as compared to the Book of Job.
Relapse - An intervention is needed for an artist who thinks she wants to get back into the music business.
Hands - A Christian monk is tested  by his ethical deficits.
New Client -  An old-time talent agent signs up his last client.
The Great Jester: Havershire, a medieval court jester, tells his life's story.
Physician’s Lounge, April 1st: Dr. Metzger is no longer allowed to make April Fool's jokes.
Menlo Park, 1891 - Thomas Edison makes a film, Newark athlete.
Tom Hanks Stories - Tom Hanks is a nice guy.
Adolf Hitler: The GQ Profile - A gushing magazine profile of the dictator.
Any Person, Living or Dead -  Frequently asked questions about the new technology allows you to have dinner with anyone, living or dead.
Upward Mobility  - A powerful studio boss and his able assistant are before Saint Peter.
Dinosaur - A dinosaur writer is unable to keep up with the new writers.
Artist’s Revenge - A successful director forces his harshest critic to make a movie.
Stage 13 -  A young, unaccomplished director is offered the opportunity to make a movie with a unique star.

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

Last Seen Alive

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas
HarperCollins: 6/26/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062843173

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas is a recommended psychological thriller.

Libby Hall and her husband Jamie both need a vacation. When there is an offer to swap houses with a couple, the Haywoods, they decide to take a chance on it. Libby and Jamie can't believe their luck when instead of a seaside cottage, they have swapped staying in their flat in Bath to stay at a lovely seaside estate in Cornwall. Soon, though, some disquieting discoveries are made and disconcerting events seem to be happening. When Jamie falls ill and then is rushed to the hospital, it marks the beginning of a change in their plans.

After they return to Bath, odd things begin to happen. It seems the Haywoods may have wished them harm. Libby is becoming paranoid, wondering if Jamie is keeping a secret from her, but Libby has some secrets she has been keeping from Jamie. This is just the beginning of the twists and turns that await you.

On the positive side for those who like psychological thrillers there are plenty of revelations and secrets to be revealed in this novel. It opens with a woman killing her husband, so you know something is going to go wrong. The writing is good; Douglas takes care to explore the psychological aspects of her characters, especially Libby's paranoia. She helps the reader gain some sympathy for Libby, as she is still privately grieving over her lost child after a miscarriage, which was caused by a very public heroic act.

Last Seen Alive started out interesting, but then it started to become a bit too unbelievable. And, again, when Libby wouldn't talk about and hadn't told Jamie what happened in Thailand (the novel will tell you) I already sussed out what was going to be the big reveal. What I really wondered was why would anyone leave personal information out and accessible to people they have never met when doing a house swap, especially if you are already generally suspicious and paranoid about people? Any why wouldn't you met these people first? This sort of marked the beginning of some rather forced revelations/twists.

In my final evaluation, Last Seen Alive would be a satisfying vacation read. Certainly it is a decent airplane book that will hold your attention, but you won't cry if you misplace it along the way.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Believe Me

Believe Me by JP Delaney
Penguin Random House: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101966310

Believe Me by JP Delaney is a highly recommended deceptive psychological thriller.

Claire Wright is a British actor who has come to America to take classes and hopefully find an acting job. Unfortunately she is here without a green card and can't legally work, but she needs money to live so she ends up working for a law firm specializing in divorce. Her job is to act as a high price hooker and catch on film for female clients their suspected unfaithful husbands negotiating for Claire's services. When one of her clients is found murdered in a hotel room, the husband, Patrick, who turned down Claire's proposition, is the main suspect.

Claire ends up working undercover for the police to try and get Patrick to confess to his murder of his wife. She is forced to do this or risk being deported as an illegal immigrant, but she also felt a connection with Patrick when she was trying to entrap him, so she agrees to the plan. The police also suspect that Patrick is a serial killer.

This is a fast-paced thriller packed full of unreliable narrators, especially Claire. I will freely admit that the plot is preposterous and purposefully deceptive - vital information is held back from the reader in order to create suspense. Does Delaney mess with your mind, withhold vital information, and make you wonder what the heck is going on in this novel? Yup.... and it was simultaneously kind of fun and annoying. I didn't see the ending coming at all.

Claire is an over-the-top unreliable narrator obsessed with acting and her roles. Claire (and the novel) approaches almost everything as a role, a part she is performing, which can also make you wonder what is real. The thing is that the story is very compelling and even when you are shaking your head saying "Really?" you will want to keep reading to see what happens next. I need to note that Patrick is a translator for Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857), a book of poetry dealing with evil and eroticism, which plays a major part in the novel and can be off putting.

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

Whistle in the Dark

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey
HarperCollins: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062309716

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey is a highly recommended psychologically complex mystery.

Lana, the youngest daughter of Jen and Hugh Maddox, has just been found, bloody, bruised, and soaking wet after being missing for four days. Jen and fifteen-year-old Lana were taking a painting class in the country for a mother-daughter vacation when the teen went missing. Now Lana simple repeats to everyone who asks that she can't remember what happened to her. Lana, who is suffering from depression and full of teen angst, has been moody, difficult, and undergoing counseling after self-harming and a suicide attempt. So, was she abducted? How did she get hurt?

Jen needs to know the truth and begins to contemplate what happened before the vacation and reconstruct the events of the painting class. She begins her own desperate investigation into Lana's life, looking at her social media interactions, trying to find out what she is telling friends, looking through her sketchbooks, looking at the books in her room. Jen is full of anxiety about Lana, and her quest to find answers becomes an obsession.

Whistle in the Dark has created a quandary for me in terms of evaluating/rating it. On the one hand it is beautifully written literary novel that realistically explores in-depth the psychological reactions of a family and their interpersonal relationships in the midst of complex situation. Healey authentically captures the reactions of a truculent teen and a worried inquisitive, hyper-vigilant mother. The emotional turmoil roiling through the novel is exhausting, but compelling. The anxiety is palpable and oppressive. Both Jen and Lana are realistic, complicated characters and their relationship is thoroughly explored and examined through their interaction. The short chapters are all from Jen's point-of-view and vacillate back and forth in time.

On the other hand, early on in the novel I was quietly telling Jen (and the police) where to look for the answers. I was correct. If the central theme of the novel is the answer to the query "Where was Lana?" then it isn't a huge mystery because Healey provides the clues to answer the question early on in the novel. If the theme of the novel is the exploration and examination of the relationship between a troubled mentally ill teen and her mother, then it succeeded. However, it is rather slow moving in regards to both thematic questions.

Healey's Elizabeth is Missing was on my top ten novel of 2014, so I had high hopes (and high expectations) for Whistle in the Dark. The sheer excellence of the writing, the character development and the exploration complex psychological reactions met my expectations. The final resolution... not so much. Still it is a very good novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Watch the Girls

Watch the Girls by Jennifer Wolfe
Grand Central Publishing: 7/10/18
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781538760840

Watch the Girls by Jennifer Wolfe is a highly recommended debut mystery/thriller.

Liv Hendricks used to be Olivia Hill, a child star. She left the TV show she was on after the night her sister Miranda disappeared. That night their other sister, Gemma, also a child actor, called to be rescued from a party and the two sisters went out to pick her up. Something awful happened and only two sisters remained. Gemma continued on with her career, but Olivia changed her name to Liv and dropped out for over ten years. Now she was on a farcical, derivative show based on Scooby-Doo, but has just been let go. She hears about Shot in the Dark, a crowdfunding site, and offers to investigate a mystery for the highest bidder and share her findings in a webseries.

When she receives an anonymous offer of $20,000 from Red_Stranger to investigate the disappearance of four girls along Dag Road, now called the Dark Road. The donor identifies himself as filmmaker Jonas Kron, a man known for his dark, gory horror films. He lives in a California town called Stone's Throw, near the Dark Road, and filmed his movies in the area. His niece was one of the girls who disappeared. The disappearances have negatively impacted the town and its economy. Liv accepts the offer. She receives a clue when she arrives, to follow the white wolf, and her investigation begins, but then her sister Gemma shows up, and subsequently disappears, which adds a different urgency to her investigation.

The writing is good. Wolfe will hold your attention and entertain you while telling the story. The narrative mostly follows Liv in the present day, but there are flashbacks to the fateful night her sister Miranda disappeared and the events that lead up to this. Not everything in the plot is completely believable. Parts of the novel are a little over-the-top, just like many Hollywood productions, and the mood can jump from humorous to disturbing quite quickly.

Liv is a complicated character and well-developed. There is a reason for her excesses and her issues that comes to light at the end.  Liv is really the only well-developed character, as the others are more archetypes of certain caricatures. Admittedly, I had most of the mystery figured out early on in the novel, but Wolfe also had a few surprises that I didn't see coming. 

Watch the Girls is enjoyable and full of twists and action, but there were two drawbacks for me. First was Liv's promiscuity. It was bothersome enough to drop my rating down a star. I just wanted to see some mature, thoughtful behavior and better judgement from a character that I liked. In this day and age that is such a destructive choice. The second was the disturbing descriptions of sexual violence. (There could be some triggers for people in this one.)

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

The Pharaoh Key

The Pharaoh Key by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
Grand Central Publishing: 6/22/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455525829
Gideon Crew Series #5

The Pharaoh Key by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is a highly recommended final novel and fitting ending (?) to the Gideon Crew series.

Gideon Crew has a brain arteriovenous malformation or AVM, and has about two months left to live, however, he will remain strong and mobile right until the end so the doctor's advice is for him to live every minute the best way he can. He and his engineer colleague Manuel Garza have also discovered, after not being paid for months and no word of warning from their employer Eli Glinn that they no longer have a job with Effective Engineering Solutions, EES. Garza calls Crew telling him that they have a few hours to clear their belongings out of the office.

While gathering what they can, they discover that a code-breaking computer at EES, after working on it for almost five years, has cracked the code found on the centuries-old stone tablet, the Phaistos Disc. With some sleight of hand, the two smuggle out a copy of the findings on a flash drive. The two work on deciphering the data and agree to split the treasure they expect to find. Their destination is the remote and forbidden zone of the Hala’ib Triangle in southeastern Egypt. The treasure hunt involves one mishap and disaster after another, but still Crew and Garza keep pressing on to the remote location.

The Pharaoh Key is a fast paced, enjoyable action/adventure novel that involves more than one unexpected twist. Although reading the previous novels will give you additional background information and character development, I think you can enjoy this one as a stand-alone for the sheer value of the escapism and adventure it will provide. Are there some unanswered questions? Sure. Lucky coincidences? Yup. Miraculous escapes? Uh huh.  But is it a page-turner? Oh, yes! Adding to the action, Preston and Child manage to keep the tone light and even evoke a few laughs while providing an entertaining adventure, which, in the end is worthy of at least 4 out of 5 stars (and only rated in comparison against their other novels). Preston and Child know how to write well-paced entertaining story and that was certainly the case here.  I enjoyed reading The Pharaoh Key

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Last Thing I Told You

The Last Thing I Told You by Emily Arsenault
William Marrow: 7/24/18
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062567369

The Last Thing I Told You by Emily Arsenault is a highly recommended psychological mystery/police procedural.

When therapist Dr. Mark Fabian is found Bludgeoned to death in his office, it shakes the town of Campion, Connecticut. In the opening chapter former patient Nadine Raines finds Fabian's body and flees, full of conflicting emotions and introspection. After a violent incident at the local high school, she was a patient of Fabian's 20 years ago, starting when she was sixteen until she went off to college at eighteen. Nadine's chapters find her contemplating and replaying events from her life, including her sessions with the doctor. Why did she come back to see the doctor after so many years away?

Henry Peacher is the detective investigating Fabian’s death. He is a local hero after he stopped mass shooter Johnny Streeter's killing spree at a nursing home five years previously. Now, as he tries to piece together clues found in Fabian's office, he knows he needs to look into the doctors patients. His search leads him to two old files that the doctor had pulled and left out in his home. One file is Nadine's; the other file is Johnny Streeter's. Are the two connected? Henry also remembers Nadine from high school and the incident that lead her to therapy. Could she still have the same violent tendencies or hold a grudge against the doctor?

I really enjoyed the alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Nadine Raines and Detective Henry Preacher. Both are nuanced, well developed, imperfect characters. Henry Preacher is a great, realistically portrayed character and I loved the chapters following the police investigation. Nadine's chapters brought in the psychological thriller aspects to the novel. She is tormented still from her past. Much of her inner monologue is addressed to the doctor, as if she is still in therapy with him, and also dwells on other events from her past and childhood.

The Last Thing I Told You is really a enjoyable, well written novel with a nice twist at the end. It's not really a shocking thriller, but it is a very satisfying investigation with some psychological unease provided by Nadine's inner commentary. The suspense does continue to build gradually as the investigation continues and Nadine's commentary provides more background information. The setting, in a small town where everyone always seems to know everyone else, adds an additional dimension to the novel. I found the ending very satisfying because it reflected how an investigation might suddenly take an oblique turn, based on evidence, to find a resolution to the case.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of William Marrow.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Baby Teeth

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
St. Martin's Press: 7/17/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250170750

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage is a recommended horror novel.

Alex and Suzette Jensen are parents to seven-year-old Hanna and don't know what is wrong with their daughter. Hanna is mute. Tests show that there is nothing that is preventing her from speaking. It seems that she just refuses to speak. Hanna acts out and has been asked to leave preschools and schools, leaving  Suzette to homeschool her. Suzette is also suffering from Crohn's disease, and the stress of dealing with Hanna is not helping. Alex is oblivious to Hanna's darker nature.

Suzette knows that Hanna loves her father, Hanna never acts out in front of him and will do anything to make him happy,  but Suzette also knows that Hanna hates her and is becoming more aggressive toward her. Hanna growls and barks like a dog in front of Suzette, but never Alex. When Hanna decides to speak only in front of Suzette, she claims (in a French accent), that she is Marie-Anne Dufosset, a 17th-century girl who was suspected to be a witch. But, Hanna only speaks in front of Suzette and it is only to let her mother know that they are adversaries. It is decidedly ominous and creepy.

Baby Teeth is undoubtedly well written. The narrative is tightly plotted and bursting with tension, so the novel moves along quite swiftly. The chapters alternate between the viewpoint of Suzette and Hanna. You need to know before you read Baby Teeth that this is a dark, disturbing psychological horror novel and Hanna is a budding psychopath (not a sociopath - there is a difference).

My qualms are with how disturbing and unsettling the novel was for me. I had to set it aside and read something else before finishing it, a rare event. It is tense. It is also more than just psychological suspense. It should be classified as a horror novel. You have to be prepared to read a novel where a young girl wants to seriously hurt her mother. You may also have to overlook Hanna's age and wonder if she would be truly capable of everything she does at age seven, including the computer research and her advanced ability to read and comprehend the information she seeks. You also need to be prepared to learn a lot about Crohn's disease. (Now, does it compare favorably to Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin? Perhaps, marginally, although it is not quite as well written and plotted as Shriver's novel.)

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

Creepy Crawling

Creepy Crawling by Jeffrey Melnick
Arcade Publishing: 7/17/18
eBook review copy: 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781628728934

Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America's Most Infamous Family by Jeffrey Melnick is a highly recommended scholarly examination of the after effects of the Manson Family's actions and the lasting impact on culture today.

"'Creepy crawling' was the Manson Family's practice of secretly entering someone's home and, without harming anyone, leaving only a trace of evidence that they had been there, some reminder that the sanctity of the private home had been breached."

August 9 and 10, 2019, will mark fifty years since the Manson Family murders. The sixties counterculture, Manson, and the Tate-LaBianca murders still pervaded pop culture today and can be found in art, music, books, films, etc. Melnick explores why Manson and the girls captured the social, political, and cultural events of the past fifty years and still influences many cultural expressions today. It began with a complicated social revolution started in the sixties and marked the end of the decade with murder. Melnick is not concerned with recounting the horrific crimes. In this work he is more concerned with examining the ongoing presence of Manson and the Family in our current culture.

Melnick also takes some exception to the "cultural script" as an explanation for the actions of the Manson Family as explained by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his 1974 book Helter Skelter, along with others who wrote about Manson and the girls, like Joan Didion and Todd Gitlin. He feels that Manson became a weapon that was used to tamp down the growth of the sixties counterculture and portray it as a completely negative.

The Manson family wasn't the only communal community bonding together as their own kind of family. The counterculture and freak culture was rising and had a firm foothold in California in both San Fransisco and Los Angeles. It is a complicated amalgamation of a myriad of cultural components that all resulted in the sixties counterculture, where not all the participants were psychotic murderers. Many were runaways, believe in free love, experimented with drugs, expressed themselves musically, and wanted to create their own kind of family.

Certainly Manson dominated his followers and required that they submit to his authority. For many of his followers, escaping from bad homes, Manson's "family" provided some measure of acceptance, but with a weird twist of submission and sexual availability. It has always been disconcerting for me that Manson basically established a patriarchy, lived off the efforts of the women, and expected them to serve and service him.

First it should be noted again that  is not a sensationalized true crime account of the murders. This is a well-documented academic examination of the cultural influences of Manson and his family.  My review copy contained a plethora of endnotes and a list of works consulted, including print and online, and video documentaries, and websites, and those with which he personally communicated. The final book will contain black and white photos.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Arcade Publishing.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay by Alice LaPlante
Scribner: 7/10/18
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501190889

Half Moon Bay by Alice LaPlante is a so-so dark mystery/psychological study of a grieving mother.

A year ago Jane O'Malley lost her teenage daughter, Angela, to a car accident. Ever since that day, Jane's grief has been overwhelming, all-encompassing, and consuming her every thought. Her marriage ended. In an effort to find some way to live her life, Jane, a botanist, has moved to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay to work at Smithson’s Nursery with the native plants. Awkward handling interpersonal relationships and conversations, Jane is just trying to find her way through her grief.

When the young girls start disappearing, though, Jane's loner ways and inept social skills put her on the police and FBI list of suspects. It doesn't help that Jane has no alibi for the time the girls disappear and for later, when their bodies are found. Her one, albeit weird and odd, obsessive need becomes her recent friendship with new residents, Alma Godwin and Edward Stanton, and her affair with Edward. But, as more information comes to light, Jane has been making bad decisions since her daughter's death. Can you trust her?

I'm not a fan of the writing technique LaPlante utilizes in Half Moon Bay. The dialogue is italicized, and part of Jane's thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style. The narrative is told through Jane's first person account but, because Jane is so consumed with grief, and has her thoughts stray all the time, this can make the narrative difficult to follow.

While readers will feel sympathy for Jane, she is not a trustworthy or likeable character. Well, no one is in this dark, atmospheric psychological study (with the exception of Adam, a co-worker at the nursery). The ease in which Jane can be manipulated and seduced by Edward and Alma is annoying and disturbing. I've got to say that there is no great surprise about the plot or the ending of Half Moon Bay. Astute readers are going to know with certainty what direction the plot is going to take very early in the novel and will be correct. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Her Pretty Face

Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding
Gallery/Scout Press: 7/10/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501174247

Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding is a recommended domestic thriller.

Frances Metcalfe has low self-esteem and feels like a pariah to the other mothers at Seattle's exclusive Forrester Academy. Her son, Marcus, eleven, who was recently accepted into the elite school, has ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder. After an incident at the school, Frances and Marcus are now shunned and looked down on by the other mothers and students. Then Kate Randolph steps up, befriending and supporting Frances. Kate's son, Charles, even makes friends with Marcus.

The two women are very different, but share a common scorn for the arrogant snobs from the school.  While acceptance with the others might be nice, it is even better to have a confident friend by your side. The problem is that both women are hiding secrets. One of them is hiding her real name, Amber Kunik, and she was involved in a murder in 1996. Can people change their essential personality and character? Can all past actions be forgiven?

The narrative is told through the alternating voices of Frances and Daisy, Kate's fourteen-year-old daughter, who is going through some problems and not telling anyone about them. Additionally, there are flashbacks showing Amber Kunik's role in the 1996 murder. The big questions are who is Amber and what is happening to Daisy. The characters, Frances, Daisy, and D.J., are basically well developed and their storylines are interesting.

The writing is okay. I had a few issues with some of the descriptions and remarks made by characters. The problem for me was that the big questions were easily figured out early on in the novel so the plot needed to be interesting enough to hold my attention as the characters all figure things out or have their big secrets revealed. It is an okay mystery/thriller. It is not a stay-up-all-night to finish book. Certainly it fits the airplane book rating - it is interesting enough to pass the time but you aren't going to cry if you lose it, misplace it, or never finish it - which is fine.  Be forewarned that the ending is weak and anticlimactic.

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom by A. E. Hotchner
Penguin Random House: 7/10/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385543583

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom by A. E. Hotchner is a charming depression era story set in St. Louis featuring a young protagonist. It is very highly recommended

Twelve-year-old Aarom Broom (almost thirteen) is guarding his father's car from the repleviners, two guys from the finance company who would repossess the car for non-payment if they see it. His father, Fred, has an appointment at a jewelry store to show them his samples of Bulova watches - and hopefully sell them some. When his father is buzzed into the jewlery store, pulling his large sample case behind him, Aaron sees a fat man follow quickly follow his father into the store. Then he hears shots, a window shatters, and the fat man runs out of the store, tucking a gun into his waistband. The police show up and Aaron's father is soon being handcuffed and detained by the police.

Eavesdropping on the officers, Aaron learns that his father is considered a material witness and possible accomplice. He will be held without bail. Since his mother is currently at a tuberculosis sanitarium, Aaron is on his own. He quickly surmises that he needs to do some "detectifying" and find out the identity of the real robber. First he will find a way to get his father's car moved and hid in a safe place, then he is going to start looking into the jewelry store employees. Aaron wrangles together a group of friends to help him, including the building manager, a newspaper boy, an ex-neighbor girl, and a kind lawyer, all while hiding from the juvenile welfare officer, trying to find his next meal, and a safe place to sleep.

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom is an old-fashioned tale about a self-reliant, determined young man whose clever sleuthing helps him find the answers he needs to free his father. There is a real sense of community and helpfulness that we don't generally see today portrayed in the novel. Are the answers a bit too convenient for Aaron to find? Sure, but Aaron is an appealing, optimistic, and undaunted narrator. Hotchner provides plenty of period details viewed in the matter-of-fact way a twelve-year-old would view them.  This is a delightful, fast-paced, old-fashioned detective story that was a sheer delight to read.

(Apparently some of this story was also covered in Hotchner's autobiographical novel, King of the Hill, 1972, which I now have on my wish list.)

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