Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Altruists

The Altruists by Andrew Ridker
Penguin Random House: 3/5/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525522713 

The Altruists by Andrew Ridker is a very highly recommended debut novel about a dysfunctional family struggling after the death of their wife and mother.

Arthur Alter relocated his family, wife Francine and children Ethan and Maggie, from Boston to St. Louis after accepting the non-tenured position of engineering professor at Danforth University in St. Louis. While he was sure he would eventually become a tenured professor, it never happened. Francine is the person who keeps the family together and it is her income, as a family and couples therapist, that helps supports the family and pay for the mortgage on the large house Arthur wanted.
Francine died from cancer two years earlier and left her children a large inheritance - money Arthur knew nothing about. Ethan and Maggie are still reeling from the death of their mother and haven't seen their father since. Arthur started an affair with a much younger professor while Francine was dying, an affair Francine, Ethan, and Maggie all knew about. Now Ethan and Maggie are both currently living in New York City. Maggie is a recent college graduate. She is striving to do good things for her neighbors and lives a life of self-imposed poverty, to the point of starving herself. Ethan, 31, left his consulting job, is a recluse and was living off his inheritance, but is now deep in debt. His father never understood him.
Now, after not talking to his children for two years, Arthur, 65, has a scheme he needs to put into action that involves the help of his children. Arthur is going to lose the house to foreclosure because he can't afford the mortgage, but if he can get his children to use their inheritance to pay off the mortgage, then he and his girlfriend can move into the house. To put his plan into action, he writes to Ethan and Maggie, inviting them to come home for a visit, but his ploy doesn't go exactly as he planned.
These are all memorable characters and readers will become well-acquainted with Francine, Arthur, Ethan, and Maggie. Francine is clearly the glue that holds this novel (and family) together. Without her, everyone is self-involved and clueless. There are moments where their actions or Arthur's obvious schemes to play on sentiments are so off-the-mark or awkward, that it is both humorous and yet poignant. Ridker succeeds in presenting the narrative with wit, compassion, insight, and depth, making these flawed characters human.

The Altruists is an exceptionally well-written family saga. This outstanding, complex, and compelling novel is a page-turner that will hold your attention throughout. Both the quality of the writing and the character development are excellent, resulting in a intricate, dynamic, insightful, and perceptive debut novel. Chapters presents everyone's point-of-view, including Francine's, and include flashbacks and the backstory of the four family members.This novel is a pleasure to read and makes Ridker a novelist to watch.

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Before She Knew Him

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
HarperCollins: 3/5/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062838155

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson is a highly recommended thriller with unreliable narrators.

Hen (Henrietta) Mazur and her husband Lloyd Harding are settling into their new suburban home outside of Boston. It's a perfect location for Lloyd's commute and Hen's rented studio space nearby. Life seems to be going well for the couple, especially now that Hen is on the right medication to control her bi-polar disorder. When they meet and are invited over for dinner by their neighbors, Mira and Matthew Dolamore, the night is uneventful until Hen spots a fencing trophy in Matthew's study that she knows looks like one that belonged to a young man who was murdered two years before. Hen has been obsessed with this case and she knows the trophy went missing after the murder.

Matthew works at the school where the murdered young man attended and he knows Hen suspects him of something, so he removes the trophy. This marks the start of Hen's obsession with Matthew and she begins to watch/stalk him. Is she having another psychotic episode, like the one she had during college, or is Matthew a killer? Hen talks to Lloyd and the police, but it is unclear if anyone believes her due to her history of mental health problems.

Chapters alternate between the points-of-view of the characters. Clearly none of these people are reliable and it is difficult to ascertain if any of the characters can be trusted. None of these characters are likeable either, which can be a plus or minus. As you enter into their thought processes and actions, you aren't going to trust any of them. Hen's immediate visceral reaction to Matthew after seeing the trophy and promptly suspecting him of murder is odd and a pretty big hurdle. The characters are developed, although just to the extent that Swanson deems necessary for his narrative. Bad choices and bad decisions abound in these characters.

The writing is quite good and held my attention, even through my disbelief. Swanson also manages to ratchet up the tension while building the suspense and keeping the atmosphere dark and disorientating. It is clear that something bad is going to come of all of this, it is just uncertain, with these flawed characters in what form or from whom the imminent nefarious deed will come. Swanson manages to pull it all together in the end and several of my questions and doubts were resolved. The ending is satisfying, but does enter a somewhat well-traveled twist.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

We Must Be Brave

We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet
Penguin Random House: 2/26/19
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735218864 

We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet is a recommended novel which opens during WWII and spans decades.

In December 1940 during WWII, Ellen Parr finds a small child alone and asleep on the bus of evacuees from the bombings in Southampton, England. The bus arrived in village of Upton and Ellen, along with other villagers, is trying to help sort out the evacuees and find them places to stay. It seems that the child, who is later identified as Pamela, was inadvertently put on the bus without her mother, who is later found dead. Ellen is newly married to her older husband, Selwyn, owner of the local mill, and has always known that she does not want children, but Pamela captures her heart.

After a known aunt rejects caring for her niece, the authorities continue to search for relatives of the girl. Three years pass and Pamela becomes, for all intents and purposes, Ellen's daughter, so it is shocking when a relative does show up and suddenly Pamela is taken away. Ellen grieves and misses her deeply, but knows she must move on, be brave, with the help of Selwyn and her many friends in the village.

We Must Be Brave is fundamentally Ellen's life story. The novel begins in 1940, but later looks back at Ellen's traumatic childhood through to her marriage to Selwyn, before moving through the years in to the 1970's and finally to 2010. Through the years Ellen continued to miss/obsess about Pamela, even after she, later in life, helps another little girl named Penny. The devotion, obsession, of Ellen with Pamela seemed a bit too forced to me and reduced her to a caricature of a mother. She had the girl for three years, but surely knew that a relative would eventually be found after the war.

There are positives to the novel and fans of historical fiction will likely enjoy this one more than other readers. The pace to the narrative is a little slow. The writing can be beautiful, poetic, and descriptive, but also repetitious at times. The characters are portrayed as unique, quirky individuals, which helps overcome the tendency to have the characters also be a bit one-dimensional caricatures of a type of personality. Additionally, it has the potential to be an emotional novel for some readers, but, alas, I didn't shed a tear. I actually had a higher rating in mind after the first two sections but then my opinion slowly began to slide downhill. (3.5 rounding down)

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Call Me Evie

Call Me Evie by JP Pomare
Penguin Random House: 3/5/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525538141

Call Me Evie by JP Pomare is a highly recommended twisty psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

Seventeen-year-old Kate Bennet is living in an isolated beach town in New Zealand with a man who she has to call Uncle Jim. He keeps telling her that he is trying to keep her safe; that the authorities are looking for her; that she needs to recover her memory and get better. She has been told that she did something terrible one night back home in Melbourne. She is to tell everyone that her name is Evie.
Chapters alternate before and after; between Kate's memories of her past, with events leading up to her current house imprisonment as "Evie," and her present situation in New Zealand. Her past memories seem like that of a normal teenager. There have been some difficulties in her life, but she seemed to be handling everything fine. Her present circumstances seem illogical and sketchy. Jim is giving her some prescribed drugs to help her feel better and recover her memories. She doesn't trust him, but doesn't remember the events he claims lead them to hide out here. He claims he is just trying to protect her and they don't want "them" to find her whereabouts. Kate is desperate to find out what she supposedly did and get home to Melbourne. At the same time, Jim's paranoia and furtiveness is growing.
This is a engrossing thriller that will hold your attention, if only to try and find out the truth behind Kate's tortured memory and her current weird imprisonment with Jim. Every character is unreliable in Call Me Evie so you aren't going to know who to trust. Kate's memory is fragile, but she seems like she is truthful. Jim seems sketchy, like he's hiding something, but he seems to want to protect Kate. Who can be trusted? Who is hiding the truth? What is the truth? When you reach the denouement, you will be shocked.

Call Me Evie is a well-written debut novel and certainly a page-turner, making Pomare a writer to watch. The before chapters will actually hold your attention and keep you reading in order to understand what has happened in the after chapters. The after chapters move a little slowly and are written to be vague, with a repetition of feelings and actions. Additionally, a case could be made that some of the information that is withhold until the end could have been slowly released earlier in the after chapters. 

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


Dannemora by Charles A. Gardner
Kensington: 2/26/19
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780806539249 

Dannemora: Two Escaped Killers, Three Weeks of Terror, and the Largest Manhunt Ever in New York State by Charles A. Gardner is a very highly recommended examination of the events that lead to the 2015 breakout and the aftermath of the manhunt.

The Clinton Correctional Facility is located in Dannemora, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains, near the Canadian border. In June of 2015 two convicted murderers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were able to escape the maximum-security facility. The two were aided in their escape by prison employee, Joyce Mitchell. She provided them with the tools they needed to cut through  the steel walls in their cells. From there they had access to the catwalk behind the cells that led to a series of tunnels and underground pipes that allowed them to escape outside the prison walls through a manhole. For twenty-three days news reports followed the escape and the manhunt while residents in the area "were virtual prisoners in their own homes as law enforcement from across the nation swept the rural wilderness near the Canadian border."

Gardner, a municipal court judge, a lifelong resident of the community, and a retired correction officer does an excellent job presenting the background, complete story, and timeline of the murderers, and the terrifying manhunt after their escape. The escape was essentially the perfect storm of bureaucratic incompetence and cost-cutting measures, combined with Mitchell's lack of morals, ethics and stupidity. Gardener has professional insight into the corrections systems history and training, and can pin point state actions and budget cuts that resulted in an environment that helped facilitate the escape.

Dannemora is an excellent true crime drama, well-written and skillfully organized. For those, like myself, who were not familiar with the escape at Dannemora, Gardner, provides all the information I needed to understand the background and circumstances of the escape. He shares his personal history and credentials which allow extra insight into the correctional system. He furnishes the biographical background of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat. There is succinct information on Mitchell's fraternization with both men, smuggling in contraband for them, and other, inconceivable and just plain stupid actions on her part that assisted in their escape. (She was also supposed to be their get-away driver, but suffered a panic attack at the last minute and didn't show up.) He explains some of the lax actions of a few the guards, why some security measures are no longer followed, and how everything combined with Mitchell's actions to result in the escape. The timeline leading up to the end result of the manhunt is clearly laid out and easy to follow.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Last Romantics

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
HarperCollins: 2/5/19
Advanced Reading Copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062358202

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is a very highly recommended family drama.
Opening in 2079, Fiona Skinner is a 102-year-old poet who, during a rare public appearance, meets a young woman whose parents named her "Luna" after a woman mentioned in Fiona's world-famous work, "The Love Poem," written 75 years earlier. This Luna wants to know the story behind the real Luna, from the poem. This request requires a long story from Fiona, which makes up the bulk of the novel.

1981 marks the beginning of "the Pause" for the Skinner siblings. This is the year their father suddenly dies, leaving their mother, Noni, a young widow with four children. They move out of their beloved yellow house into a smaller, more modest home and Noni falls into a paralyzing depression that lasts three years. At the beginning of the Pause, the children were 4-year-old Fiona, 7-year-old Joe, 8-year-old Caroline, and 11-year-old Renee. While Noni stays in her bedroom for days at a time, the Skinner children must fend for themselves, which creates a powerful bond between them. Noni eventually reclaims her parental responsibility, but the Pause deeply impacted the whole family with reverberations into adulthood. Noni comes out of it as a much more militant woman, wary of men and any dependence upon them.

Fiona serves as the omniscient narrator for the story of her family and how their traumatic childhood continued to be the root of issues which followed them into adulthood. The sibling most damaged by the Pause was Joe, but all of them suffer from consequences and approach adulthood quite differently. Renee is driven and focused as she pursues a medical career. Caroline marries early and is devoted to her professor husband and their children without considering her own desires. Fiona has a mindless job at a nonprofit called ClimateSenseNow! while secretly writing a blog detailing her sexual encounters. Joe has problems with addiction that are basically ignored or quietly handled by the family.

The writing is exceptional and the compelling story of the Skinner family will hold your attention throughout the novel. The early trauma from the Pause and the on-going family saga is gripping enough without framing the engrossing parts of the story with hints of a climate changed future. Actually, the chapters set in 2079 serve only as a distraction from the real story. All the oblique references to a dystopian future and climate change are never adequately addressed. These chapters become a structural problem that only serves to detract from the real story. It would have behooved Conklin to find a better venue for Fiona to relate the story of her family. The Last Romantics held my attention, in spite of the structural problems of looking back from the future to tell the story. I enjoyed the narrative immensely, but would go to 4.5 on a rating based on the 2079 chapters framing the real story.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Never Tell

Never Tell by Lisa Gardner
Penguin Random House: 2/19/19
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524742089
Detective D. D. Warren Series #10

Never Tell by Lisa Gardner is a very highly recommended procedural and suspenseful thriller featuring Boston's Detective D.D. Warren and victim's advocate/vigilante Flora Dane. This is an excellent novel and a superb addition to the D.D. Warren series.

 Evie Carter returns home to find her husband, Conrad, dead in his home office. He has been shot three times, but Evie takes his gun and shoots his computer twelve times. The police arrive and see Evie, who is obviously pregnant and still holding the gun.  D.D. Warren arrives on the scene and recognizes Evie from a case sixteen years ago, when Evie was 16 and accidentally shot her father, a Harvard professor. Two shootings can't be coincidental, as far as Warren is concerned. 

When Flora Dane sees Conrad Carter's face on the news, she immediately recognizes him from when she was still a captive of kidnapper, Jacob Ness. Ness took her to a bar where they met Conrad. Now Flora must revisit her past to try and remember what she knows about Conrad. She is also determined to discover the truth behinds Conrad's murder and how it may be tied into crimes by Ness. 

Never Tell is an outstanding, fast-paced, intricate procedural that delves into dark secrets and has questions and complications multiplying with every chapter. This is an un-put-down-able novel that had me glued to every page, breathless with anxiety and anticipation wondering what could possibly happen next and what new information would be uncovered. The writing and pacing is superb. The plot is complex, intelligent, and astute. The final climax is disturbing, clever, heart-stopping, and brilliant. Truly, Never Tell is a stay-up-way-too-late-to-read-just-one-more-chapter novel. 

The characters are all well-developed and well-established at this point. For those who are new to the series, you can enjoy this as a stand-alone novel, but fans of the series will appreciate it even more as they will have a greater insight into the characters. There simply has to be another addition to the series as soon as possible as there are several questions that need answers, and some developments that require further exploration, and other questions that need to attain a degree of closure.

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

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Next to Die

The Next to Die by Sophie Hannah
HarperCollins: 2/19/19
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062388353 

The Next to Die by Sophie Hannah is a highly recommended, layered mystery and police procedural.

A Police task force from across England is fervently trying to find a psychopathic killer. They have given the killer the moniker of "Billy Dead Mates" because he appears to be targeting pairs of best friends.  Before Billy kills them, he gives each of them a hand-made white book with one line from a poem in it. So far two sets of friends have been killed and the police are at a loss to explain why these two specific pairs of friends were targeted and any connection between them.

Stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck hears about the search for Billy Dead Mates on the news and comes forward with even more puzzling information: she received one of the little white books at a gig a year earlier. She threw it away, thinking it was just something from a deranged fan. Then, after seeing the report, she remembers seeing another white book on the bulletin board of the cancer ward where her grandmother was dying. The police are even more baffled at Kim's information. Kim was not a friend to her grandmother and really trusts no one. Why would she be given a book? Why would she be targeted for murder?

The chapters alternate between several characters, excerpts from Kim's book called Origami, based on her experiences with the Billy Dead Mates killer, emails, short stories, letters, and magazine columns. Along with the major question, who is Billy Dead Mates, there are several other investigations ongoing and a rabid journalist who claims the murders are all femicide by a deranged, misogynistic man (never mind the one male killed). There is a lot going on in this book and not all of it has to do with Billy.

I liked the chapters that were excerpts from Kim's book and from her point-of view. Kim is a great character, interesting, funny, observant, quirky, and unique. She is really the glue that will keep most readers sticking with the novel. At first the various narrative threads from all the characters have the potential to seem a bit confusing, but eventually they all get sorted out and a larger picture will begin to emerge. Some of the various threads could have been left out, resulting in a much tighter plot (although readers of the Spilling CID series of novels won't have any issues keeping the characters separate.)

Hannah provides a complex, clever plot with some memorable characters in The Next to Die, which should please most readers. She excels at developing all the characters, while keeping you guessing about who the killer might be and why Billy chose the victims as his target. The final solution about who and why is worth the journey.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Psychology of Time Travel

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
Crooked Lane Books: 2/12/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781683319443

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas is recommended debut murder mystery with a plot device that involves time travel and some of its consequences.
The first time machine is built in 1967 by a group of four women scientists: Margaret, Lucille, Grace, and Barbara. When they are ready to reveal of their fantastic invention, one of the group, Barbara, suffers a breakdown and is forced to leave the group. She is subsequently ostracized after Margaret convincingly orders Lucille and Grace to never have contact with Barbara ever again. Margaret, the leader of the group, becomes the head of the Conclave, the organization that oversees all time travel, and she rules it with arduous control.
Fifty years, in 2018, later a young woman, Odette, opens the museum where she just started working and finds the murdered body of a woman in a locked room in the basement. The event traumatizes Odette and also compels her to find out who the person was since she had no id on her, and why/how her murder happened. She meets with a therapist, Ruby Rebelloto, help her with the trauma. Ruby is the granddaughter of Barbara, Granny Bee to her, the ostracized time travel pioneer. Their meeting seems connected and predestined because Ruby's Granny Bee had received a newspaper clipping from the future reporting the murder of an unidentified woman (in 2017), and Ruby is obsessed with finding out if it was Granny Bee.
The narrative is told from alternating perspectives and decades in short chapters. The short chapters mean that the point-of-view and time period changes frequently. There are a number of characters, and some of these characters are time travelers, so they appear from different time periods in different plot threads. It does concern itself with the psychology of time travel, but the essential core that holds the novel together is a murder mystery. It is easier and more compelling to follow the novel if you focus on the murder mystery and set the time travelers and their jargon aside as an interesting plot device. 
All of the characters would have benefited from better development and an increase in insight into their own personal psychology. Margaret is the antagonist. She is egotistical, cruel, and arrogant. She runs the Conclave with a model that stigmatizes anyone with any kind of mental illness and engages in cruel hazing techniques to desensitize and test the devotion of new recruits to the Conclave. Her choices in how the Conclave is run are having a negative impact on people and the institution.
While there are interesting tidbits of insight into the effects time travel has on those who are members of the Conclave, there is also the increasing sense that all the time travelers are observers and information collectors with little concern over how they impact the past or future. They often visit themselves in the past or future, which is interesting but the effects of which are never explored beyond the surface details. The marriage of two people from two different time periods will surely bring several questions to mind for the reader.

I actually finished The Psychology of Time Travel over a week ago and the characters and their situations fell quickly from my mind. For fans of sci-fi, this isn't really a great choice for a time travel novel. For interested readers, at end of my review copy, there was a questionnaire/test you could take to determine if you would be suitable to apply to the Conclave. (I wasn't interested in it enough to take it, which is telling.)
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crooked Lane Books.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

American Pop

American Pop by Snowden Wright
HarperCollins: 2/5/19
review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062697745

American Pop by Snowden Wright is a highly recommended generational Southern family saga involving a cola dynasty.

The Forster family was the founder of the world’s first major soft-drink company, the Panola Cola Company, and this is the story of their rise and fall across a century. Houghton Forster is the founder who developed a delicious fizzy drink with a secret ingredient that helped create a cola dynasty in Mississippi and propelled him and his family to the upper reaches of society as the demand for PanCola swept across the country. Houghton and his wife, Annabelle, have four children, Montgomery, Harold, and twins Ramsey and Lance.

The chapters do not follow a chronological timeline, but jump from different periods in time. Two things are important to notice and use while reading: dates at the opening of chapters will set you in the right time period and the family tree at the beginning of the book will assist in identifying the characters until you know them more intimately. While all the characters may seem overwhelming at the beginning, if you stay with the novel the narrative will all start to make sense and fall into a timeline. It is rather essential to take it slow at first and learn who the characters are and where they fit into the family and the saga. Once you have a grip on who fits where and when, the narrative will move faster.

Along the way the novel Wright utilizes the technique of adding real and imagined historical quotes and mythical reports, blending fact and fiction which adds a depth to the narrative and makes the novel feel more like a biographical piece on a real family soda dynasty. I liked this touch quite a bit. As you were learning some of the private inside information about the lives of the family, there is the added dimension of the historical public view of the Foresters. The result is an intricate family saga with a complex mythology.

The quality of the writing is very good. The text is brimming with wit, irony, anecdotal digressions, and recognizably Southern sayings. At the same time there are also heartbreaking, tragic moments contrasting with incidences of great passion. Ultimately the characters are well-developed. At the end, you can almost believe that this Southern Gothic novel is a real biography of the first cola dynasty.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tacoma Stories

Tacoma Stories by Richard Wiley
Bellevue Literary Press: 2/12/19
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781942658542 

Tacoma Stories by Richard Wiley is a very highly recommended collection of fourteen interconnected short stories set in Tacoma, Washington.

The first story, set in Pat’s Tavern in Tacoma on St. Patrick’s Day in 1968, introduces the sixteen characters and their connections to each other. "So we were Pat, Fatty, Paddy, Vivian, Sari, Hani, Lars and Immy, Jonathan from Yale, Becky Welles, Ralph the English teacher, Lindy the convict’s ex, Andy, Earl, and Mary and I [Richie]. Sixteen characters in search of a play on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1968." The stories are set in different time periods, from the past up to the present, and include at least one of these characters.
Pay attention to the date when the story is set, as they do not follow a linear timeline. Several of the characters recur in several stories, with even a mention, which further ties the collection together as a complete narrative and facilitates the character development. The extended timeline, covering a large portion of the lives of these characters, allows the stories, as a whole, to establish a realistic look at how life doesn't normally turn out how you have planned. All of these characters have struggled in one way or another to survive to the present day and the stories help highlight some of the bumps along the way.
This is a very well-written and offbeat collection that is best read as a whole, in one sitting, if possible, in order to keep track of all the characters and retain their stories fresh in your mind. It will also assist you in catching all the connections between them over the years. Some of the stories are humorous, with situations that are memorable and absurd. While the narratives are all strong individual stories, presented together as a whole they create a masterful collection and reflection on life over the decades.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bellevue Literary Press.