Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Invited

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: 4/30/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385541381

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon is a highly recommended ghost story.
Helen and Nate Wetherell decide to leave city life behind and buy forty-four acres in rural Vermont where they plan to build their dream house by themselves. When they discover that the property has a dark past and a reputation for being haunted, former history teacher Helen begins to research the life of Hattie Breckenridge, the woman who lived and died there a century ago. Hattie is said to haunt the land and surrounding bogs. Helen not only researches Hattie's life, but that of her descendants too, three generations of "Breckenridge women." There seems to be more to their deaths than the locals are admitting... And who is trying to scare them off? While their neighbor, fourteen-year-old Olive Kissner, admits to some stunts, she is not responsible for all of them.
While this is a ghost story, it is also very much a mystery. And, while this is a ghost story, it is not a horror story, although horrific things do happen by the hands of the living. It is also the story of seeking a treasure, that may or may not be real, and this is also reflected on several levels in the narrative. There is definitely tension that slowly builds and the mystery and questions expand gradually, slowly building to a surprising, shocking conclusion.

McMahon is an exceptional writer and I always look forward to her novels. The characters are all well-developed and you will feel empathy for all of them. Following Helen's investigations and discoveries is just as compelling as following Olive's inquiries. The pacing is perfect. The disclosure of more information is closely tied to the incremental odd occurrences and new developments. The tension builds, not with nail-biting horror, but with a subtle feeling someone might be in the room with you, and what was that noise, and is that what I think it is? The real story behind the ghost story, is a tragedy and perhaps the truly frightening part of the tale. While I loved other novels by McMahon more, this is still a very good novel and a perfect choice for a rainy day and foggy night.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

The Innocent Ones

The Innocent Ones by Neil White
Hera Books: 4/24/19
eBook review copy; 404 pages
ISBN-13: 9781912973071

The Innocent Ones by Neil White is a highly recommended investigative legal thriller.

Dan Grant, a criminal defense lawyer, and Jayne Brett, a private investigator, are teaming up to look into the murder of London journalist Mark Roberts. Dan is representing Nick Connor, a petty thief who has been charged with Roberts' murder. When the victim's mother comes to Dan and claims that Connor is likely innocent because her son would have been investigating a previous criminal case and the real killer would be associated with whatever Mark was investigating.

Trying to find out what Mark was investigating will allow Dan to find the real perpetrator and get his client off the hook, so he calls in Jayne to help uncover what Mark Roberts was looking for, who he was talking to and, most importantly, why. The case leads back to a series of child murders in Yorkshire over twenty years ago and the man who is in prison for them. Apparently Roberts has uncovered some secrets that have led him to believe the convicted man was innocent. The real trouble is that exposing some secrets can be deadly.

This is a very well written legal thriller with plenty of twists, turns, danger, secrets, and surprises. At the start there are two story lines, both of which are compelling. These merge in the second half of the narrative and the tension rises along with the intrigue. This is the third and final book in the series featuring Dan Grant and Jayne Brett. I haven't read the previous two in the series, From the Shadows and The Darkness Around Her, but that didn't lessen my enjoyment of The Innocent Ones.

The characters are well developed, especially as this is the third book featuring them. I didn't feel like I was missing much jumping into book three. The two work well together and have a nice chemistry between them. The action starts slowly at first, but there is plenty of back story being shared and inside information given to the reader. There is evil afoot and it becomes more and more palpable as the investigation and story unfold. Then the narrative and action take off with the twists and discoveries.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Hera Books.

Strange Tales of World Travel

Strange Tales of World Travel by Gina and Scott Gaille
Travelers' Tales Guides, Inc.: 4/23/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781609521691

Strange Tales of World Travel by Gina and Scott Gaille is a highly recommended collection of fifty bizarre, mysterious, horrible and hilarious tales.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen or experienced?” Wherever they go, they Gina and Scott Gaille ask this question. Between them they have traveled to more than 100 countries, including many off-the-beaten-path places in Africa, South America, and Asia. What they have learned is that everyone has a story, and many of them are unforgettable. This book is a memoir of recollections of their experiences and fifty of the stories they have heard.
The tales open with the setting which begins with a brief description of the place and any needed background information needed to lead into the story. Stories come from across the globe:  Bora Bora, the Sahara Desert, Botswana, the Galápagos Islands, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Kenya, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea, Caribbean, India, Lithuania, South Africa, Angola, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Madagascar, Seychelles Islands, Rwanda, the Arctic Ocean, the Serengeti Plains, Australia, Mount Kilimanjaro, Guatemala - and that is only some of the settings.
All of the stories are brief, but memorable - as one would expect from the question being asked all of these various people is vastly different places. The first story is hilarious and will immediately grab your attention and propel you forward to read the rest of the tales. After that the content varies greatly depending upon the person asked the question and the place they are located. This is a book that you can read in short bursts or binge read all at once. Either technique will still result in some vastly different stories and amazing tales.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Travelers' Tales Guides, Inc.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher
Orbit: 4/23/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316449458 

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher is a very highly recommended story of a quest set in a dystopian world. Great novel!

Griz and family live on an island off the west coast of Scotland. They are part of only a few thousand people left in the world. The world has suffered a soft apocalypse that is called the Gelding, a global epidemic of infertility that left the vast majority of the world's population unable to have children. Griz's family sees no one else, so it is just them and their beloved dogs. Griz's dog are are Jip and Jess. When a red haired stranger shows up, saying he is a trader, he seems friendly, but when he leaves, he steals food and Griz's dog, Jess. Griz jumps into a boat along with Jip and they give chase, because you can't steal a person's dog and if you aren't loyal to those you love, what's the point?

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is an excellent, compelling, un-put-down-able story and I know this will be a contender for one of the best books of the year. It is written through Griz's voice via journal entries written after the fact. There is foreshadowing expertly interwoven in the tale of survival and courage in a strange world full of ruins. Griz is devoted to Jip and Jess and will do anything to rescue Jess from the stranger. The suspense and tension is palatable as danger abounds everywhere.

No spoilers, as I want to respect Fletcher's wishes to allow readers to experience the journey as it unfolds, so I'm not going to say too much more. The writing, though, is exceptional, and the tension and suspense is kept high. This is a classic story of an epic quest. Griz is a great character, well-developed and believable in this very different world. There are some plot twists that you will not see coming and they will shock and astound you.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Orbit

"...when liars say they’re going to tell you the truth, it’s time to listen extra carefully to their stories–not because they’re going to try and hide the truth inside them, but because the truth’s not going to be there at all. The real truth is going to be in the things they don’t mention. So if you listen to the shape of their lie, you can see the room it takes up, and then you look for the truth in the empty spaces in between."


Earthbound by Paul Falk
BooksGoSocial: 3/10/19
eBook review copy; 205 pages
ISBN-13: 9781090256638

Earthbound by Paul Falk is a so-so science fiction novel.

An asteroid of unbelieveable size (20 miles!) is found to be hurling on a collision course toward the Earth. The impact and the end of life as we know it is going to occur in 32 days and the world falls into chaos. Set in San Diego, California, our protagonist, Jim Stone is ex-Navy and sets out to prepare. He manages to get the last cart load of groceries out of the local store, arms himself, and then coordinates getting his son, girlfriend, and best friend all ensconced at his house.

Setting aside the rather stilted writing and somewhat awkward dialogue, the start to the plot in Earthbound is strong,  The chaos brings violence and Jim is ready to meet it head on, gun at the ready, protecting those he loves and what they have. There are several narrow escapes from death for all of them. The impending disaster looms large and the violence threatening them is palpable. The narrative is gripping at this point and you will be wondering if they can survive.
Then it all takes a side-track, running off the rails of a great start and heads down the allegorical trail. The juxtaposition of concern over the survival, protection, and safety of those you love being suddenly banished for a greater concern that can be made to directly compare to a current political situation was a story-killer. Additionally, the amount of discussion between characters relating to this was, well, kinda preachy and long-winded. Less time was spent discussing the neighbor demanding food and trying to break into your house so you had to kill him. (For those who read Earthbound, ponder this and the other shooting in comparison to the later lecture.) Then the ending abruptly arrives with no conclusion. This is part one of a series.

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Better Sister

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke
HarperCollins: 4/16/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062853370

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke is a highly recommended domestic thriller.

Chloe Taylor is married to Adam Macintosh. Adam is the ex-husband of her estranged sister, Nicky. The two are raising Nicky and Adam's, Ethan, and Ethan calls Chloe "Mom." Fourteen years ago Chloe helped Adam get custody of two-year-old Ethan, proving Nicky as an unfit parent. Although the two weren't involved at that time and had no plans to do so, things happened and they ended up getting married and raising Ethan together.

Of the two, Chloe is the more successful. She has always been ambitious and driven to succeed. Currently she is the very successful editor-in-chief of Eve magazine in NYC and has recently gained significant recognition and fame. When Adam is murdered by an intruder in their second home in East Hampton, Nicky comes back into their lives. Then Ethan is arrested for Adam's murder and the two work together to get him exonerated, even as family secrets are exposed and several hard truths need to be confronted.

Although partly a courtroom drama, The Better Sister is mainly a domestic thriller. It is not fast-paced, which allows time for a slow disclosure of some secrets and hidden drama. This is not necessarily a complicated thriller, rather it is a character driven domestic mystery where secrets are exposed and everyone is looking for the truth of who really murdered Adam and what really happened in the past.
The writing is very good, in a pretty straightforward style. The novel has a strong start and the courtroom scenes were well-done. The ending isn't surprising, but the narrative is really about the journey to get there and the secrets that are exposed. Since this novel is strongly character driven, the characters are all well developed, albeit keeping all manner of secrets from each other. The negative comments Chloe reads about herself on social media were a realistic touch that maybe subliminally could be social commentary, but in this case is tied into the plot. The Better Sister is a good pick for a summer vacation read or an airplane book. It will keep you entertained and help pass the time. 3.5 rounded up.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Alice's Island

Alice's Island by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo
Atria Books: 4/16/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501171956 

Alice's Island by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo is a so-so domestic mystery.

Alice Dupont's husband dies of natural causes, a brain aneurysm, in his car miles away from where he said he was. Alice, soon to be the mother of two, undertakes an investigation of her own to find out why her husband was on the road where his car was found and where he had been coming from before that, as he was clearly on his way home from somewhere else. She retraces her husband's trip and finds clues that lead her to Robin Island, a small island located near Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Alice moves to the island, using her maiden name, with her two daughters, six-year-old Olivia and infant Ruby. She then sets out to spy on the residents of the small island in an attempt to find out what her husband was doing and if he was cheating on her.

This is Arévalo's first novel to appear in English, so perhaps something was lost in the translation, as far as the actual writing goes, so I'm giving a pass to any quibbles with the writing and the dialogue. I can say that the novel felt padded and I was losing patience with it and Alice. The search was interminable and, well, stupid and pointless. She wanted to know where he had been, so why not tell the truth to people? Why make up a lie? Why move to the island and continue lying? Why not simply tell people who you are and what you want to know? All the bribing people, clandestine spying on people, and supposition about what could have happened was pointless and especially trying on this reader. 

Alice herself starts out as a sympathetic character. Her husband has just died, she is close to having their second daughter, and she doesn't know why he was in that part of the country. Then she starts to lose credibility as her weird search for "the truth" begins along with her needless lying. She loses all sympathy when she begins spending large sums of money (at a conveniently placed spy store) to actively spy and snoop on people and begins an affair with a married man. A novel with an interesting start, tedious overly-padded middle, and uninteresting, albeit happy, ending.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Before She Was Found

Park Row Books: 4/16/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778307730 

Before She Was Found by Heather Gudenkauf is a very highly recommended psychological thriller and mystery. I could not put this novel down!

Twelve-year-old Cora, Violet, and Jordyn are having a sleepover at Cora's home in the small town of Pitch Iowa. When they decide to sneak outside and go to the abandoned rail yard, the end result is Cora found severely beaten, Violet is in shock and covered in blood, and Jordyn is at her home with her grandfather. The police and the parents are trying to find answers to who did this and why, but the answers are much more complicated than first imagined. Who could be responsible for this kind of crime? 

Cora has been struggling to make friends and navigate the emotional cesspool that is Middle School. Violet is shy, new to town, and it looks like she and Cora are going to be good friends. Jordyn is the school queen bee and a bully. She has been cruel to Cora, so her change of heart is suspect. The three girls have been working together on a class project on urban legends. They have chosen a local man, Joseph Wither, who was lived decades ago and is reputed to be a killer of young high school girls over the years. The three supposedly thought they were going to the rail yard to meet a man claiming to be Wither, who would be in his 90's now. 

Before She Was Found opens with the assault and then the past events leading up to are slowly disclosed. The narrative unfolds through the point-of-view of several different characters along with journal entries, text messages, therapist notes, and police interrogations. There are so many layers to this story and as each new clue is revealed, your suspect will change. Finding answers through girls who aren't able to say what happened, parents who are protecting their kids, authorities who are struggling to find clues and answers makes the investigation into the truth complicated and constantly changing. The ending is absolutely disquieting and stunning.

The writing is superb and the pacing of the narrative is perfect. I was totally immersed in the mystery and compulsively said "Just one more chapter..." while trying to figure out what happened. The characters were all believable and well-developed, although they aren't all reliable. At the conclusion of Before She Was Found I sat there, stunned. I did not even have a hint of a guess about what really happened. Before She Was Found is an excellent novel, compelling and engrossing throughout the whole novel.

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

Miracle Creek

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 4/16/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374156022

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is a very highly recommended twisty legal thriller and a notable debut novel.

Young and Pak Yoo and their teenage daughter Mary are an immigrant family from Korea who run a private experimental medical treatment facility in rural Miracle Creek, Virginia. Their "Miracle Submarine" is a pressurized oxygen chamber for hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT, which involves breathing pure, pressurized oxygen. Patients enter the chamber for "dives" that are believed to treat a wide range of issues and medical conditions. Their chamber is located in a barn behind their home. A fire, clearly arson, occurs, which causes the submarine to catch fire and explode, killing two people and injuring four others.

What or who caused the explosion is the focus of this legal thriller. A single mother of one of the patients who died is being charged with murder in the opening scenes. Her actions seem clearly suspect, but this is a complicated story with many suspects. As the trial starts the list of suspects, the secrets and the lies being told seem to multiply. As Kim develops the backstory of all her characters, new information and complications emerge, and the list of suspects grows ever longer as the plot becomes increasingly complicated.

Miracle Creek is an irresistible page turner, merging a dramatic murder trial with in-depth character studies and compelling courtroom scenes. All of the characters have secrets and information they are hiding from that night, but the complications are even more intricate than just a simple omission of a single fact. The suspects will change as you are reading and more facts and secrets come forth. You will feel some empathy or sympathy for all of the characters at least once. All of the lies and omissions will make sense if you have ever encountered a person who always makes themselves look good during all events and can never admit flaws. Even the way the lawyers can twist facts to benefit their clients is telling.

The writing is absolutely excellent and the plot is the perfect synthesis of character development, a complicated mystery, and a legal thriller. I was entrenched in the complicated, detailed plot and really had no clear idea who was guilty or if it would be a perfect storm of lies and mistakes that led to the explosion. The final denouement is very satisfying and ties up all loose ends. This is a brilliant debut novel.

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

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Alice & Gerald

Alice & Gerald by Ron Franscell
Penguin Random House: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 330 pages
ISBN-13: 9781633885127

Alice & Gerald by Ron Franscell is a highly recommended true crime drama that reads like a novel.

Alice and Gerald Uden murdered at least four people and thought they had gotten away with it for almost forty decades. Between the two there were multiple failed marriages before they met and married. Alice killed husband number three in 1974. Gerald met and married her in 1976, a few weeks after his third divorce was final, and she became his fourth wife. The two were an oddly suited-for-each-other couple, with Alice firmly controlling their lives. When it seemed that Gerald's third ex-wife, Virginia, and mother to the two boys he adopted, might be wanting more child support, Alice wrote several insulting, unsettling, and vaguely threatening letters to Virginia. Then, in 1980, Virginia and the two boys mysteriously disappeared.

With Virginia's mother, Claire, suspected foul play - and Gerald. She was asking questions and insisting that the police investigate, although their initial investigation seemed perfunctory. After all, Virginia was living a nomadic lifestyle and she could have just decided to move on to somewhere else. It seemed Gerald got away with murder. And then, even when her children were telling authorities that Alice told them she killed her ex-husband, It seemed that this murder case would also go cold. Even when suspected and questioned, Alice and Gerald weren't talking. It took decades and the determination of several investigators to finally get the answers after a skeleton is found

What follows is a long investigation by authorities trying to bring murderers to justice. They also uncovered a lot of background information about Alice and Gerald. When the two cases break open in 2013, it is a relief to the readers that justice is finally served, and it is satisfying, even when served cold. 

Franscell writes this true story in a matter-of-fact style that reads like a police procedural crime novel, although the reader will have more inside information than the police did while working these cases. The book is extremely well-researched; Franscell spent two years researching it and interviewing Gerald.  Alice & Gerald contains chapter notes and sixteen pages of color photos. This is a fascinating case.

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

Someone Knows

Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline
Penguin Random House: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525539643

Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline is a recommended psychological domestic thriller.

Four fifteen-year-old teenagers find a gun buried in the woods and proceed to obsess over it and each other. Two of the teens are going through some serious hidden real-life trauma (Allie Garvey and David Hybrinski) and two are creating their own upper-class privileged teenage angst (Sasha Barrow and Julian Browne). When a fifth teen (Kyle Gallagher) who is already experiencing a life-changing trauma is added to the group, the dynamics change. A night of drinking ends with deadly results and the teens keep that night a secret, going their separate ways.

The turning point, the unbearable secret the teens share doesn't occur until the half-way point of the novel. The lead up to the event is spent in character development of the five teens, focusing on their lives and their secrets. Then the novel jumps ahead to the future when Allie is attending the funeral of one of the group. She realizes that the decision the four made has left her with guilt that has eaten away at her ever since that one fateful night.

This is really a novel of highly dysfunctional families and a very stupid teenage mistake. The ending is over-the-top and the final twist was... head-shakenly unbelievable. Part of the problem is that you are waiting until the novel is half over for the huge game-changer and you are spending the time leading up to that focused on these teens, their problems, their emotions, and their families. Then the whole tone of the novel changes into a different novel.

Since this is a Scottoline novel, she partially gets away with this because she's such a good writer. I paused only twice, wondering what was going on with the pacing while waiting for the game changing event, and then the end, which seemed like a very different novel in comparison to the first half. When I finished it, I had to wait before even trying to write a review because my initial impression was so poor. In summary, The quality of the writing is excellent, the characters are well developed, the pacing is very uneven, and the ending requires you to set disbelief aside.

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Last

The Last by Hanna Jameson
Atria Books: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501198823 

The Last by Hanna Jameson is a highly recommended end-of-the-world psychological thriller.

Jon Keller is attending an academic conference at the isolated L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland when people begin to receive the notifications of nuclear bombs hitting various cities - Washington D.C., NYC, London, Berlin... As the news outlets and social media explode with the shocking news, they also quickly go silent and it is impossible to contact people. Jon is unable to contact his wife and regrets the harsh words they exchanged before he left for the conference. In the aftermath of the apocalyptic news, many people leave the hotel and try to get to the airport. Others commit suicide, or wander off into the surrounding woods. The clouds are now a strange color.

Two months afterwards, Jon is still at the hotel with a small group of twenty survivors comprised of guests and staff. When the water begins to taste off, Jon joins a small group who head up to the water tanks on the roof to investigate. They are shocked to find the body of a young girl in one of the tanks. Jon becomes obsessed with trying to find out who she was, investigate her death, and find the person responsible for it.

The chapters are written from Jon's point-of-view and in the form of a sort of journal documenting life in the hotel, including personal stories about the other survivors and their experiences. Jon records his investigation, personal interactions, and stories from the others. The tension rises from the isolation of the group, along with the various personalities and alliances that naturally form with a diverse group of people.

Characters Jon interacts with and are his friends are well developed. Naturally they all have secrets. Other characters whose stories Jon records are developed as secondary characters and, perhaps, suspects as the novel progresses. The novel focuses more on the psychological aspects of the situation, which seems very realistic in this isolation scenario, although there are cases of danger when violence is a real possibility.

The writing is quite good and the tension increases incrementally. The narrative moves along at an even pace - until the end when it inexplicably ramps up the pace to the point where the denouement feels rushed. This is part of the locked-room genre of novels, with the isolated setting during an apocalypse limiting the number of suspects but also making finding an answer nearly impossible. I liked the ending, despite the rushed aspects of it.

There were several instances in some of the interactions between characters when I could definitely tell that the author is British, not American.  For example, there was a place in a conversation where Jon said that " America we've all been taught this idea that we're descended from rugged self-reliant cowboys." (Ah, no. We're not taught this. Never. Not even a hint of this.) There were also several rather disparaging instances of political commentary. It would have behooved Jameson to leave out some of that which she doesn't actually know as fact.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Saving Meghan

Saving Meghan by D.J. Palmer
St. Martin's Press: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250107459

Saving Meghan by D.J. Palmer is a recommended domestic medical thriller.

Becky Gerard is a devoted mother who only wants her only child, Meghan, to be well and healthy, but Meghan has been struggling with a mysterious, undiagnosed illness. Becky has learned the medical jargon and made personal connections with specialists while trying to help Meghan. Carl, Becky's husband and Meghan's father, doubts Becky's motives. He thinks she is obsessed and making Meghan ill by her treatment of her.

When Becky meets with several new specialists she gets a new diagnosis for Meghan and a diagnosis for herself. While one specialist, Dr. Zach Fisher, believes Meghan has mitochondrial disease, another more powerful MD, Dr. Amanda Nash, believes Becky has Munchausen syndrome by proxy and maneuvers the situation for the state to take custody of Meghan. Now Becky is fighting for the life of her child and her reputation.
The narrative is told through several different characters, including Becky, Meghan, and Zach, with Becky being the main narrator. Becky and Carl both are rude and unpleasant characters, although we are repeatedly told how darn attractive they are and how much this matters to everyone they encounter. Becky is such an annoying character - egotistical, privileged, and manipulative - that it is difficult to muster sympathy for her. It is clear, from the start, that Becky will be accused of Munchausen's. She is so unlikable that it is easy to believe except for snippets from Meghan's narrative which suggest something else is going on in her family.
The writing is good, in spite of the unpleasant characters. This is a medical thriller that will pass the time if you simple overlook the traits of the characters and just follow the plot. There are some twists and surprises, however the pacing is a little slow at times. While there is a lot of medical jargon, it does serve to highlight Becky's obsession with Meghan's medical condition which helps to make Becky's diagnosis believable. This was a 3.5 for me, but I'm rounding down because the novel was a chore to read at certain junctures. A strong airplane book choice.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

Outside Looking In

Outside Looking In by T. C. Boyle
HarperCollins: 4/9/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062882981

Outside Looking In by T. C. Boyle is a very highly recommended look at early psychedelic experimentation in the 1960's.

LSD was first synthesized in BaselIn, Switzerland in 1943, as covered in the prelude. The novel then advances to 1962-1964 and introduces Fitzhugh (Fitz) Loney, a psychology Ph.D. student at Harvard. When his advisor, Tim, invites Fitz and his wife, Joanie, to attend a Saturday night research session at his home, they are nervous, but accept. Tim and his inner circle are taking psilocybin mushrooms to see if they could be used in a therapeutic treatment program. Soon, Tim and the group begin to take LSD for research purposes. Fitz and Joanie are not completely entrenched in the group at first, but that changes when Tim rents a resort in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, invites the whole research group to join him, starting the idea of communal living, and begins to offer summer seminars. Fitz and Joanie go to Mexico, taking Corey, their teenage son along.

As the research becomes less scientific, Tim loses his position at Harvard, but rents a sixty-four room mansion in Millbrook, NY, for the group. There they will practice communal living and offer seminars to other interested parties. As experimentation and rampant drug usage ensues, all ideas of academic papers and scientific trials are set aside. Fitz, who was going to work on his PhD thesis at Millbrook, instead loses focus, and his family begins to disintegrate.

Outside Looking In is thoroughly engrossing and I was totally entrenched in the narrative. Even if you know where it is heading, Boyle has presented a fascinating insight into Leary's perspective through the viewpoint of Fitz and Joanie as they enter his inner circle. The writing is excellent in the detailed plot, capturing the times and the flawed personalities involved without resorting to stereotypical descriptions. The narrative follows the actions of the characters and their experiences, while allowing the reader to make deductions about the ethics or any overarching morality themes.
The character of Fitz is well developed and the reader can clearly follow the change in him as he moves further into Tim's inner circle and increases his experimentation. That is not to imply that he is predictable. He does slowly go through a transition, as does Joanie. No judgement is made on their integrity or transitions. The narrative follows the action and the judgements and  conclusions are left to the reader. It is a small slice of a small group of people during an interesting time in history. This novel captures a time, a juncture in history, and the implication of the cultural impact to come.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie
Penguin Random House: 4/2/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525557340 

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie is a recommended/so-so novel following a disaffected young man through his coming-of-age into adulthood.

Ben is an honor student at the elite Bailey Academy where he finds himself part of the honor society led by teacher Pierre LaVerdure. LaVerdere is a capricious advisor who teaches his group of students how to discuss topics, with both reason and deception.  As Ben moves aimlessly on after graduation, eventually to college, and in and out of relationships, LaVerdere's influence seems to continuously be a part of his subconscious.

The quality of the writing is excellent, but the execution of the plot and the character development is not very satisfying. Basically this came across as yet another novel about an indecisive, aimless, indifferent unfulfilled millennial going through not even a very interesting existential crisis in a somewhat pointless plot. That may seem harsh, but I feel as if I've read about this character before but placed in a much more focused narrative with a decisive plot. Beattie provides some incredible emotional insights and the quality of the writing elevates this above the ordinary, both of which influenced my rating, but with a sharper focus on the plot this could have been a more powerful novel.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Lights All Night Long

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick
Penguin Random House: 4/2/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525558736 

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick is a highly recommended heartbreaking coming-of-age novel.

This is the story of two Russian brothers, Ilya and Vladimir, who take different paths. The novel opens with fifteen-year-old exchange student Ilya arriving in Effie, Louisiana, from Berlozhniki, a small village in Russia on the edge of the Arctic Circle. This should be an exciting time, a dream come true, but as he left Russia, he left his older brother Vladimir behind - and Vladimir has just been thrown into jail and charged with the murder of three young girls. Ilya knows Vladimir is innocent, but how can he prove it while living in America?

The story alternates between the Ilya's past in Russia, leading up to the present day, and his time in America, where he finds an ally and help from his host family's daughter, Sadie. The two brothers were always close, but Ilya has always been the studious one, excelling in learning English. As Ilya studied and prepared for the exam that would allow him to be an exchange student in America, Vladimir descended further into drinking and the local drug culture. Now Ilya and Sadie find a way to help Vladimir from afar.

The alternating chapters serve to contrast the poverty in Russia and the abundance in America, but also served to show, as Ilya learns more, some of the similarities in both countries and cultures. The novel does start out slow and it takes time to get a better feel for Ilya and establish some sense of connection to the characters. The connection with Ilya does improve as the novel progresses and his character becomes better developed, but the slow start to the narrative does serve to impede any immediate connection. Sadie, the oldest daughter of the host family,  is developed as a character, but the rest of the family are never really developed beyond caricatures.  Mostly, this is a tale of two brothers, their bond, and the very different lives the two live
This is a well-written, compassionate, compelling account of Ilya's life and family and an impressive debut novel. The mystery, solving the murders, does reach a satisfying conclusion which is aptly tied into the plot. The focus is really on the relationship between the brothers and the lengths you will go to help those you love.

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