Sunday, September 30, 2018


Rainsongs by Sue Hubbard
The Overlook Press: 10/9/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781468316636

Rainsongs by Sue Hubbard is a highly recommended, beautifully written novel about loss, love, healing, and life.

After the death of her husband in December 2007, Martha Cassidy has returned to her husband's remote cottage where he went to write. It is near a tiny, remote village on the west coast of Ireland in County Kerry. Off the coast are the Skelligs, a group of barren islands occupied by monks in 520 AD. Once at the cottage, Martha sorts through her husband's belongings and reflects on her husband, his life, his infidelities, but she also finally grieves the loss twenty years earlier of 10 year-old Bruno, her only child and that he never got to take a boat trip to the Skelligs.

In this windswept headland, there are other contemporary outside forces that insert themselves into Martha's consciousness. A successful developer, Eugene Riordan, wants to buy up all the farmland on the coast and build a spa resort. Older local hill farmer Paddy O'Connell quietly refuses to sell to him and ends up injured under mysterious circumstances. Riordan also wants part of Martha's land but she manages to put him off.  Martha also befriends local musician and poet, Colm, who doesn't want to lose the rural area's way of life.

The descriptions of the landscape and setting are exquisitely crafted and certainly show Hubbard's poetic turn of phrase. Beyond Martha, the beautiful, rugged landscape is truly a main character. The loss of a way of life and rural setting may have to be mourned if the farmland is sold and the development changes the area and the beauty of the remote area. The plot is quite simple and quiet.

Martha is a clear-headed woman dealing with more than a few memories, good and bad, and grieving her losses and what could have been. This is a lamentation of the loss of a husband and son. Martha must sort through memories as she sorts through things, and she must negotiate with her grief and feelings to set a course to her future. She is a well-developed character and we know her inner thoughts and musings as she does what she needs to do at the cottage in order to go on with her life. The other characters, beyond the landscape, are all more caricatures for several archetypal characters.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of The Overlook Press.

The Night in Question

The Night in Question by Nic Joseph
Sourcebooks: 10/2/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492668008

The Night in Question by Nic Joseph is a recommended thriller set in Chicago.

Paula is working a second job as a Drive Away Car ride-share driver to make some extra money to pay her husband Keith's medical bills. On her last fare of the night she picks up a man who called himself  "Lotti" and drops him off at a gold coast apartment building where, obviously, a woman is looking out the window, waiting for him. The next day she realizes that her fare was actually Grammy Award–winning pop singer Ryan Hooks and the woman he was meeting was not his equally famous wife. Paula considers what to do with this information, as any honest woman would, but when she finds his phone in her car, she knows exactly what she'll do. She will offer to give him back his phone for a $180,000 "reward." The $180,000 will pay for an operation that would allow Keith, who is wheelchair-bound after his accident, to walk again.

When a woman is found murdered in the apartment building later, and when someone breaks into her apartment, Paula is sure Ryan is responsible. She reports her suspicions to Detective Claire Puhl, who is investigating the murder, and Paula is called in for an interview. The novel alternates between Puhl's murder investigation and Paula's story.

The tone in this thriller is light and sometimes humorous. Paula is very concerned that the reader knows that she is a good person, that she would never lie about important things, and that she really needs the money to help Keith. When she inserts herself into meeting the residents of the Gold Coast apartment building where she dropped off Hooks, her intentions seem dubious at best. All the narrators, with the exception of Puhl, are unreliable and operating on several different agendas.

The Night in Question is a nice mystery and has some twists and surprises along the way without a huge build-up of suspense. The ending is surprising and worth getting through some of Paula's endless rationalizing about how she really is a good person, even though she is doing all these questionable and illegal actions.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I Know You Know

I Know You Know by Gilly Macmillan
HarperCollins: 9/18/18
advanced reading copy; 384 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9780062698605

I Know You Know by Gilly Macmillan is a very highly recommended twisty thriller following two murder cases twenty years apart.

A body is found in the same location where two young boys were murdered twenty years ago. Obviously the body has been there for awhile and is not a recent murder but while awaiting identification of the remains Det. Insp. John Fletcher recalls the case from years earlier as he was part of the investigation. In 1996 Charlie Paige, 10, and Scott Ashby, 11, were murdered in the city of Bristol, England, their bodies dumped near a dog racing track. Sidney Noyce, a mentally challenged adult was convicted of the killings. Now, in 2017, Noyce has committed suicide in prison.

To complicate matters, Cody Swift, who was a friend of the two boys years ago, has decided to return to Bristol and look into the murder of his friends. Swift has a podcast he calls "It's Time To Tell" and he is questioning everyone involved with the case.  He is hoping to find new evidence to prove Noyce was not guilty and, hopefully, actually find the person responsible for the murder of his best friends.  Not everyone involved want the old case looked into again, but Swift is determined to interview people and play those interviews on his podcast.

This is a very clever original murder mystery that is well-paced, entertaining, and an engrossing read. The chapters follow Fletcher in the current investigation and the older murder; a transcript of Swift's podcast;  and Jess Paige, Charlie’s mother. It appears that some people don't want the old case reopened, but it must also be determined if the bones found are related to the 1996 case. Swift's podcast are raising old questions, and making people uncomfortable and even feel threatened.

The development of the characters is excellent. Macmillian slowly revealed more and more of each character, their flaws and fears, while what felt like a potentially threatening situation grew. Secrets abound with all of the characters. No one is perfect; everyone could be hiding something.

The writing and the presentation is pitch-perfect in this complicated, gripping mystery. The reader is presented with current information along with the story and investigation from twenty years ago and more details and new information is revealed. I was caught up with both stories and couldn't deduce what was true and what was self-serving. The pacing is perfect and the multiple points-of-view and the multiple time periods were both assets to the narrative. This novel should appeal to true crime readers as well as those who love a good twisty mystery/thriller.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Testament of Harold's Wife

The Testament of Harold's Wife by Lynne Hugo
Kensington: 9/25/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496716682

The Testament of Harold's Wife by Lynne Hugo is a highly recommended novel featuring an independent older woman with a plan to get revenge.

First a drunk driver killed her beloved grandson, Cody. Then her husband, Harold, committed suicide. Louisa knows Harold was trying to get revenge on the man who killed Cody, who claimed there was a deer in the road and was never held accountable for the death. Gus, the local sheriff, kept an eye on Harold and interfered with his plans at every turn. Now, with Harold gone Louisa decides that it is time for her to continue Harold's plan and get revenge on the killer. Now her adult son, Gary, who has dealt with Cody's death by becoming a minister, is keeping an eye on Louisa (along with Gus). Gary seems to think there is something wrong with Louisa having her chickens inside the house and talking to them. But, Louisa knows how to execute a plan and keep ahead of those who want to interfere.

The Testament of Harold's Wife is a humorous, fast paced novel. Each chapter is told through a different character's point-of-view, with the bulk of the novel following Louisa and her plans. It is an original novel with a rather charming, folksy, heroine who is grieving her losses without feeling sorry for herself. Instead she makes a plan and sets out to get the killer. The bulk of the character envelopment is, naturally, for Louisa. And while she is appealing, she does seem to act and talk older than she really is for no obvious reason.

I enjoyed the novel and there are several pretty funny scenes in it, along with several touching moments and recollections. It is an entertaining and has some poignant moments. Louisa is honest when she shares her feeling and observations about those in her life.  I was interested in her plan to get revenge and how it would all play out. The ending was a satisfying conclusion to the story. (On the other hand, I guess I don't find quite as much charm as some readers in Louisa discussing giving alcohol to her chickens and cat.) In the end, this is a satisfying novel about a woman dealing with grief, with humor, practicality, and looking ahead to her future.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington.   

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Watcher

The Watcher by Caroline Eriksson; Tara F. Chace (Translator)
AmazonCrossing: 9/18/18
eBook review copy; 240 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781503905405

The Watcher by Caroline Eriksson is a recommended "Rear Window"-esque Scandinavian thriller translated into English by Tara F. Chace.

Elena has left her husband Peter during a trial separation and has moved into a subleased townhouse. She's obviously distraught, unsettled, and unable to sleep or unpack. Her sister is trying to help her with regular Friday night dinners and checking up on her. Elena, an author, spends sleepless nights rearranging books in the bookcase. She is also watching her neighbors through the kitchen window. She discovers they are the Storm family, husband, wife, and teenage son, Leo. Soon she thinks something nefarious is happening between the Storms, and Leo, who is stopping by her house to talk to her, is increasing her anxiety about them. She is sure she is witnessing a marriage disintegrating and suspects murder may soon happen. Her watching is also spurring on her creativity, though, and she is beginning to write a new novel. Soon her writing is at a frenzied pitch and something must be coming to a deadly conclusion in both her novel and the neighbors marriage.

The plot unfolds mainly through chapters from Elena's point-of-view, but there are also chapters from the Husband's point-of-view and excerpts from the book Elena is writing. At first it is difficult to see what is real and unreal. The connection between the separate narratives is tenuous and the relevance of their inclusion is unclear, but the correlation becomes more coherent as the plot unfolds. The ending brings clarity to all the narrative threads.

It is an interesting novel and a quick read, although the plot is not unique and the outcome is not unexpected. There are a few plot points that were never completely resolved and I wish they were since they were an ongoing part of the narrative. Elena clearly is unstable and is an unreliable narrator, but this isn't handled quite as successfully in this novel as compared to other recent novels that have utilized this technique. If you enjoyed The Women in the Window, you might want to give The Watcher a try.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Escaping the Rabbit Hole

Escaping the Rabbit Hole by Mick West
Skyhorse Publishing: 9/18/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781510735804

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West is a highly recommended, informative and helpful aid to talking with friends about their beliefs in conspiracy theories.

It may be surprising for many people to realize some of the widely held beliefs in some of the conspiracy theories out there: The Earth is flat, the moon landing was faked, the World Trade Center collapse was a controlled demolition, planes are spraying chemtrails, and actors faked the Sandy Hook massacre. History confirms that some conspiracies can be real, but the ones West is discussing are not. Those who hold these false beliefs may need some assistance and gentle guidance to see their way out from their mistaken beliefs.

West believes in treating those you are talking to as a friend, with respect and patience, always striving to maintain a line of communication, rather than treating them like an enemy you must destroy with your logic and reasoning. It's a good statedgy. In this book he shares his personal experience discussing, investigating, and debunking false theories. He also draws upon the experience of others who have successfully helped friends see the truth. Finally, he looks at the literature in the field of conspiracy theories. Currently West has the debunking website Metabunk.

The book is arranged into three parts. The first takes a look at conspiracy theories, why they exist, why people believe them, and how you can help them. Part two deals with four specific conspiracy theories: Chemtrails; 9/11 Controlled Demolition; Sandy Hook was faked; Flat Earth believers. Part three looks at some of the additional complications you might encounter when talking to your friends about their false beliefs, which include a three step process of maintaining an effective dialogue, supplying your friend useful information, and allow time for the information to sink in and change their views. At the end of the book is a helpful glossary and extensive Endnotes.

I have to admit I was more than a little surprised by some of the conspiracy theories, like flat Earthers and Sandy Hook was done by actors. Some of these I had heard of before. I remember hearing and being surprised by all the talk of chemtrails back in the 1990's. I rather liked this observation by West, which covers a wide ranging number of beliefs: "People who supported the losing side in an election are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that are supposedly orchestrated by the winning side." This is an interesting, practical guide for people who feel compelled to help their friends out of the rabbit hole of belief in conspiracy theories.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing.

The Golden State

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374164836

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling is a recommended debut novel about a young mother on the edge of a breakdown.

Daphne has a 16 month old daughter, Honey, a Turkish husband, Engin, who has been denied reentry to the USA by immigration officials, and a good university job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco when she suddenly decides to pack up a few things for her and Honey, flee San Francisco, and head to the high desert of Altavista, California. She inherited a mobile home there that she rarely visits, but her uncle has kept it in good repair. Stressed out by Engin's absence and haunted by the death of a student who was traveling on Institute funds, she thinks she needs an escape, a break to a quiet, simple life. Daphne is on the edge of a breakdown.

The novel follows 10 days in Daphne's life. Parenting alone with a 16 month old, trying to Skype with Engin to maintain their relationship, and filling the time during what feels like endless days, in an environment that is even more isolating for her is a dubious choice that may serve only to increase Daphne's isolation and loneliness. She meets a neighbor, Cindy, who is part of an anti-government, anti-immigration secessionist group, and meets a 92-year-old woman, Alice, who speaks a little Turkish and is visiting Altavista with a plan.

What worked was the raw emotion she captures in Daphne character. You can feel her honesty as she worries about Engin and Honey, and tries to be a good parent. She is struggling to find her way in her isolation. Mothers will recall many of Daphne's struggles with Honey and should be able to relate to the tantrums, the meal choices, nap time woes, and what can feel like endless boring routines involved in caring for a very young child who can't express themselves.

As for the writing - readers will have to be willing to overlook many long, run-on sentences with few commas. Kiesling's writing style may require some readers to pause and reread what they just read due to the aforementioned long run-on sentences. I did so several times, and, honestly, her writing style did begin to grate. The novel also begins to drag a bit as nothing much happens until very late in the narrative. The ending wasn't entirely successful for me.

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

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Lies by T. M. Logan
St. Martin's Press: 9/11/18
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250182265

Lies by T. M. Logan is a recommended psychological thriller that features a tangle of lies to uncover.

Joe Lynch and his 4-year-old son, William, are heading home when William sees his mother's car. Joe assumes his wife, Mel, is meeting a client, but impulsively decides to follow her so the two can say hello. When they enter the Premier Inn, instead of a client they see Mel in the hotel bar, arguing with her best friend's husband, Ben Delaney. Joe hustle's William back out to the parking garage where they wait for Mel, but she leaves quickly without seeing them, so Joe confronts Ben, who begins pushing him. Joe pushes back, and Ben falls. Before he can summon help, William has an asthma attack and he decides to get help for his son. When he checks back later, Ben is gone, so Joe is assuming he is fine.

But later when he asks Mel about the meeting, she lies. Later she admits it, but lies again. And then it appears that Ben is now taunting Joe and trying to cause trouble, but Ben has disappeared, leaving his wife behind. From this point on the novel is a tangled web of people continuously lying, and amending their lies to new lies, and then changing those lies. Let's just say everyone is lying all the time, you can't trust anyone, and one of these liars is trying to ruin Joe’s  life.

The narrative in Lies covers an eight day period when Joe's world is turned upside down and he must uncover the truth. It is certainly a twisting tale of deceit and has an addictive start. After that it also becomes a tad bit slow-moving and the lies aren't as shocking as they continue. Once you realize there has been one big lie, and then that morphs in to another big lie and then... Well, most people, even the most trusting of souls, would have an inkling about the lies long before the first one is told.

Joe is an appealing character and you will be rooting for him. He is a good father and devoted spouse. Logan does an excellent job capturing the emotional roller coaster Joe is going through while trying to find the truth. However, I couldn't help but think as the plot unfolded that Joe should have picked up on a few more clues along the way and noticed what was happening so the current situation wouldn't be quite as shocking as it is for him.

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

In Her Bones

In Her Bones by Kate Moretti
Atria Books: 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501166471

In Her Bones by Kate Moretti is a highly recommended mystery/suspense novel about a woman on the run trying to uncover the truth.

Edie Beckett, 30, is just trying to live her life out of the spotlight. Fifteen years ago, her mother, Lilith Wade, was convicted of murdering six women, and sentenced to death row. The media frenzy continued after the release of the unauthorized biography by an unknown author. Edie is a recovering alcoholic who keeps to herself, has a co-dependent relationship with her brother, and an unhealthy obsession with the surviving family members of Lilith's victims. She keeps notebooks on their personal information, stalks them online (and in person if possible).

Edie's current obsession is Peter Lipsky, whose wife was fatally stabbed by Lilith. She's stalking him online, through a survivor's message board, and collecting information about him and his late wife, Colleen.  Colleen's murder is the one that doesn't fit the profile of Lilith's other victims. When Edie meets Peter during one of her reconnaissance missions, she ends up drinking too much and and goes home with him. She leaves before he wakes up, but is later found murdered that morning. She doesn't remember much of the night and now she is the prime suspect for his murder. Edie goes on the run while trying to uncover what really happened and who killed Peter.

Edie is a sympathetic, fleshed-out character and the main narrator in the book, although there are also excerpts from the biography of Lilith included and a few from Gil Brandt, the detective who caught Lilith, but also helped Edie. As the novel unfolds, Edie reminisces about her troubled childhood with Lilith while dealing with her current situation. Edie is also clearly a damaged character, and much of this began in her childhood with Lilith.

While on the run rather than talking to detectives, she does make some questionable/interesting choices along the way and has a few stumbles. In her own way, she is a resourceful, smart, and street savvy character. She is clever enough to evade being caught while trying to ferret out the truth about Peter's murder, which also requires her to look back at his wife's murder. Was Lilith responsible for it or is there another killer running loose out there and could Edie now be a target?

I found this to be a well-written, compelling mystery (rather than thriller). The pace is even, rather than fast, until the end, but the steps Edie takes and her reasoning is interesting enough to keep your attention. In Her Bones held my attention throughout. Although I had all manner of guesses and suspects, I didn't have a clue about the ending until just before it happened. Nicely played Moretti!

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

Three Little Lies

Three Little Lies by Laura Marshall
Grand Central Publishing: 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781478948568

Three Little Lies by Laura Marshall is a highly recommended mystery told over two time periods.

In 2017 30-year-old journalist Ellen Mackinnon reports to police that her friend and roommate, Sasha North, is missing. Both of the young women had received threatening letters from a man in their past, Daniel Monkton, who was released from prison five years ago. Is he in London? If he is, then both women might have a reason to fear for their safety based on the events that happened twelve years ago on New Year's Eve. Ellen must dig into Sasha's friends and the past to try and uncover what happened to her.

In 2005 the glamorous Monkton's moved into Ellen's neighborhood. Ellen and Karina, her best friend at that time, were both 17 and obsessed with them. The family had two handsome teenage sons, Daniel and Nicholas. The mother, Olivia, was a famous opera singer, while their father, Tony, was a musician, and their goddaughter, Sasha, is a beautiful teen the same age as Ellen and Karina. Ellen and Sasha soon become fast friends, with Karina on the periphery. Ellen loves the family, and especially Olivia who provides her with a life-long love of music. But then the events of New Year's Eve happen when Karina claims Daniel raped her.

The novel opens in July 2007 with Olivia at Daniel's trial for rape, so you know that this is going to transpire. Ellen is the main narrator of the novel, past and present, with additional chapters from the perspective of Olivia and Karina. The story is told through current events and those that started back in 2005. The flashbacks through Ellen's point-of-view help flesh out the characters and make Ellen a sympathetic character. It is a bit difficult to comprehend Ellen's frantic search for Sasha, when it becomes clear that Sasha is not the most reliable character. Ellen is almost too desperate in her search for Sasha. It seems that after years of being her friend she should already have a few clues and more insight into Sasha's personality. You can like a person and still acknowledge that they have flaws and shortcomings.

In the end, Three Little Lies is an immensely readable, well-written novel and you will find yourself desperate to discover what happened years ago and if it has some impact on Sasha's disappearance. Marshall does an excellent job increasing the tension incrementally to keep you on the edge of your seat while reading. Likely you will also be looking for the three lies, although at the final tally, there are more than three.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

When the Lights Go Out

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica
Park Row Books; 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778330783

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica is a so-so novel of psychological suspense.

Jessie Sloane's mother, Eden, dies from cancer and now she must try to continue on with her life after spending her teen years, since she was 15, caring for her mom. When the college she has applied to informs her that her social security number belongs to a 3-year-old girl who died 17 years ago, she needs to find her social security card, but can't. Jessie can't even find her birth certificate and she doesn't have any other identification, like a driver's license. Eden never told her the name of her father, so Jessie is running out of options. She is also struggling with insomnia, which is causing hallucinations and paranoia.

Between Jessie's narrative are flashbacks from Eden's past, beginning in 1996. Eden and her husband were newlyweds in 1996 and wanted to start a family. Soon her inability to conceive became an obsession for Eden and led to more expensive medical intervention to assist them. Her obsession becomes increasingly unhealthy and threatens her marriage.

The quality of the writing is great, but the actual plot, not so much. I struggled to get through this novel and kept talking back to the plot/action because it didn't make sense. The ending, which was likely supposed to explain all the things I was upset with in the novel only resulted in pure disgust and reduced my rating to 2 stars. (It is 2 stars because Kubica gets 1 for her writing ability. Great writer; bad plot device.) Saying anything about the extremely disappointing "twist" at the end will ruin the novel for others, but I feel like it was a lazy ending. When the ending technique used here has been tried in other circumstances, it is consistently a hit or miss for people. This was a total miss for me.

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

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia
Atria/Emily Bestler Books: 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501177361

Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia is a highly recommended character driven novel of suspense.

Maya Stark, 23, works as a speech therapist at the Congdon Psychiatric Facility in Duluth, Minnesota, but she is also a young woman with a past.  Her mother, Jane, left home and abandoned her when Maya was 10. While her father did the best he could, Maya fell into a rough crowd after that. She also was a patient at Congdon at one time. But after that she pulled herself together, attended college, received her degree, and got her position at Congdon.

When 19-year-old Lucas Blackthorn is admitted to Congdon after a burglary attempt it makes the news because Lucas disappeared along with his father, Josiah, ten years ago while camping in the Boundary Waters area in Northern Minnesota and Canada. They were presumed dead, but here is Lucas, alive and well, although at the hospital because he is uncommunicative - until he meets Maya and seems to recognize her. Their first encounter is violent, but they eventually form a truce and begin to connect. She learns that Josiah is still alive, maybe, and Lucas was just trying to get him help. Lucas, however will not tell her where they were living.

While the narrative follows present day Maya and Lucas, it also reveals the backstory of Maya and Josiah, which makes for some very compelling intense reading. There are some similarities between Maya and Lucas's stories, but also many differences. You can see the motivation behind their actions and thought processes. They are both flawed characters; loners, wary, but also survivors. Maya is a brilliant but flawed character and I was fascinated by her even while I was thinking, "No, don't do that - bad choice!" Maya's background is much more troubled and brutal, but Lucas's survivalist background living alone with his father in the Boundary Waters through the brutal winters you know had to require determination, tenacity, and skill.

Mejia knows how to write an exceptional story and she has given us another very good suspense novel with Leave No Trace. The plot is taunt and riveting with enough action to keep the steady pace moving. The backstory and character development in Leave No Trace set it apart and makes the novel a riveting story. Yes, there are a few moments where you will question Maya's choices and others where you will have to suspend disbelief; but, setting that aside, I know I sat down to read Leave No Trace and finished it that night.

The setting in the Boundary Waters resonated with me because I actually was on a camping and canoeing trip there years ago. I could picture the maps of the area (or dig out my old one) and clearly see how someone could disappear in the area wilderness.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria/Emily Bestler Books.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Lake Success

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
Penguin Random House: 9/4/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812997415

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart is a highly recommended thought-provoking tale of a mid-life crisis.

Hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen has packed his suitcase full of expensive watches (and no change of clothes) and is running away from home via Greyhound. There are several reasons for Barry's exit: he is drunk; he had a fight with his wife, Seema; he is distressed over his son's diagnosis of autism; and he is facing a SEC investigation. His decision to run away  has turned into a goal of finding his old college sweetheart and creating a good story for his future biography. Barry is in parts self-deluded and self-important, but with an inferiority complex. He is out of touch with how regular Americans live, but he taught himself how to make friends when he was in junior high and these techniques that have served him well while making his millions should work when relating to regular people too. He even throws away his cell phone and credit cards. Barry's odyssey on Greyhound buses takes him across America, from New York City to Baltimore, Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, El Paso, Phoenix, and San Diego.

Seema is seething. She's angry at Barry's departure and is overwhelmed with their three-year-old son Shiva's diagnosis. She is a very intelligent younger woman and first generation Indian American who left her law career for Barry. Now she is trying to keep track of all the therapists who work with Shiva. She begins an affair with their downstairs neighbor, a writer named Luis Goodman. Barry and Seema were having dinner with Luis and his wife, Julianna, the evening of the fight with Seema that marked Barry's decision to leave.

The narrative follows both Barry and Seema's lives in alternating chapters. While writing about what they are experiencing, it is also clear that Shteyngart is capturing the basic inability it is for various people/groups to understand what others are enduring based on abilities, income, sex, race, age, profiling, success, etc. The bulk of Lake Success is set in the summer of 2016 just before Trump is elected President, so it also depicts the differences voiced by supporters on both sides of the political divide, with the main focus being pro- and anti-Trump discussions. It should also be noted that it appears that Barry himself is likely on the spectrum, undiagnosed and highly functioning, but still.

While well-written, I vacillated back and forth on how I actually felt about the story - after all I read books for entertainment, not just for the literary merit. Parts of the novel are very entertaining, heart-breaking, and revealing. There are funny and insightful moments. Other parts, much like the endless miles spent riding the bus, were a bit-too-drawn-out. Barry doesn't really experience growth on his Kerouac-like bus trip or come to any life-changing self-awareness.

We also have two imperfect characters and they are both struggling, although with very different questions.  It is difficult to see Barry leave his son with Seema for his own selfish misguided trip. He is, ultimately, a rather lost man who has too much wealth observing those around him. But on the other hand, Seema also does some selfish actions. I did love Seema's father and his connection to Shiva.  There is so much to this novel and I think I need some more thinking time before I settle on a final rating - one of the best of the year or just a very good novel. Hmmmm. I'm going with 4 stars for now just based on the general disagreeableness of the characters.

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

Better Times

Better Times by Sara Batkie
University of Nebraska Press: 9/1/18
eBook review copy; 156 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9781496207876

Better Times by Sara Batkie is a highly recommended collection of nine short stories and the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.
The stories in the collection are divided into three parts, with four stories set in the past, four from the present, and one set in the future. All of the stories feature women or girls, and the experiences or an event they have already gone through in their lives. They are facing depression, uncertain futures, trials or illness and must find their way through the world with the baggage they have already collected.

The writing is quite extraordinary and it is clear why this is an award-winning collection. As with any compilation of short stories, there are hits and misses based on the tastes of individual readers, but it is safe to say that the majority of the stories in this short collection were winners for me.

Part One: The Recent Past
When Her Father Was an Island: A Japanese girl's father is declared MIA after WWII. While she learns to live without him, he continues to serve his country and fight the battle on an unnamed island.
Laika: It is 1957 and a girl in a home for trouble women contemplates the fate of Laika, the first dog in space.
Foreigners: Rebecca, a depressed, divorced mother with a recalcitrant, delinquent teenage son watches out her front window as her Russian neighbor, Anya Demidov, is being arrested. Anya and her husband are being charged with espionage.
No Man’s Land: It is the first summer of Desert Storm and Lucinda, 8, and her sister Addie, 6, are living in Fort Dix, N.J. where their father is a senior drill sergeant. It is also the summer her parent's separated.

Part Two: The Modern Age
Cleavage: Nan, 28, has a mastectomy and struggles with her sexuality along with feeling her phantom removed breast.
North Country, Early Morning: Grace narrates the story of the night two masked armed men planned to rob the emergency room. When the drug delivery is delayed, they force everyone who is working into a stockroom.
Departures: Betsey likes to snoop through the mail of her neighbor, Fabienne, which is how she comes into the possession of the funeral announcement.
Lookaftering: A young woman, Louisa, gives birth to three eggs in a pale lilac color, and undertakes taking care of them.

Part Three: The World to Come
Those Who Left and Those Who Stayed: The ground beneath Sherwood, Alaska split in two, breaking a piece off into the ocean. The nine townspeople who are now stuck on the ice floe struggle with their uncertain survival.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the
University of Nebraska Press.