Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Last Thing She Remembers

The Last Thing She Remembers by J.S. Monroe
Park Row Books: 5/28/19
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778307822

The Last Thing She Remembers by J.S. Monroe is a highly recommended novel of suspense.

A woman arrives at the cottage of Laura and Tony Masters in a Wiltshire village. She has just flown in from Berlin, realized her bag was stolen, and then couldn't remember her name or any details about her life. All she had was her train ticket home. She is sure that she used to live in Laura and Tony's home. The couple take pity on her and allow her to stay in their guest room. Tony declares that she looks like a "Jemma" while Laura calls a local doctor to set up an appointment. Unknown to Laura, there was a Jemma Huish who used to live in their current home. Twelve years ago that Jemma murdered her friend. She was locked up but then released from the psychiatric facility and no one knows where she is at. While locals in the village try to figure out who the woman is, the underlying question is:  Could mysterious no-name-Jemma be the killer?

The Last Thing She Remembers is an entertaining psychological novel of suspense with several plot twists. You do have to suspend disbelief several times during the narrative. (Right at the start, when "Jemma" shows up at their door, who in their right mind would then invite this stranger to stay with them?)  The good news is that there are enough shifts and twists to keep you guessing if you just make a conscious choice to set disbelief aside and go with the flow of the narrative. While the amnesia plot point makes character development less important than the plot and the action, the twists make up for the lack of initial character development.
The focus of the writing and the narrative is the plot and the many twists and secrets that will eventually come to light. This is a novel that is written for entertainment and it does deliver on that point. Monroe does add several different story lines within the main narrative that add to the intrigue. The Last Thing She Remembers is a perfect airplane book. It will hold your attention and entertain you, but you won't cry if you lose it or misplace it.  (3.5 rounded up)

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

How Not to Die Alone

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper
Penguin Random House: 5/22/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525539889

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper is a very highly recommended quirky, delightful, funny, heartbreaking, and hopeful debut novel. Yeah, ALL the emotions are here in this debut novel that had me entrenched and invested from beginning to end.

Andrew, 42, has a public health job at the Death Administration department that few people could do, let alone with the compassion Andrew shows. He enters the homes of deceased individuals who died alone and searches for some evidence of a next of kin or assets that will provide the ability to cover the burial costs. He also attends the funeral services, often as the only mourner present. Co-workers think he goes home each night to a loving wife and two children, but that is not the case. When applying for the job years earlier a misunderstanding led to the lie and he has found it easier to perpetuate it. His only friends are members of a private group on an online model train forum. His only relative is an older sister who he only talks to on the phone a few times a year.

When Peggy joins the department and Andrew and Peggy begin to form a friendship and connection. A relationship would be impossible. Peggy is in a troubled marriage, but she believes Andrew also is married. Then, when his boss decides that each member of the team will now host a monthly dinner at their home, Andrew is in a tough position. If he confesses and tells the truth now, he could lose everything, but if doesn't he could lose any chance of happiness.
The characters are all well-developed, flawed, and realistic. Andrew is a kind, awkward, and lonely man, who is still suffering from past traumas that the reader will not know all the details of until the end - and then everything in the story falls into place. In the narrative, most of his problems all seem to be self-inflicted, serving to keep Andrew safe, but lonely. Peggy is actually good for Andrew, making him open himself up to new experiences. If Andrew can take a risk, he may be able to make some personal connections, and find a chance at happiness.

The writing is excellent and the narrative is well-paced. Roper does an incredible job introducing new information and developing the plot and characters slowly to the reader, until a big final reveal at the end. How Not to Die Alone is much funnier and more poignant than any description could do justice to. In spite of the fact that Peggy is married, you will be rooting for these two. I didn't jump up to the five stars until the end, although I also talked back about the very final denouement in regards to his job.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ted Bundy's Murderous Mysteries

Ted Bundy's Murderous Mysteries by Kevin Sullivan
WildBlue Press: 4/23/19
eBook review copy; 364 pages
ISBN-13: 9781948239158

Ted Bundy's Murderous Mysteries by Kevin Sullivan is the highly recommended fourth book in his series about the serial killer. The first three books are The Bundy Murders, The Trail of Ted Bundy and The Bundy Secrets. In this third volume, Sullivan shares inside, unpublished information, documents, case files, and interviews he has collected in his research. The complete files bring to light additional facts that never made it into the other three books.
While this fourth volume can be read by anyone who has some familiarity with the Bundy case, it will be better appreciated by those intent true crime aficionados who have seriously studied every aspect of the serial killer and his murders. Sullivan does, however, do an excellent job assisting the reader in following along and putting this new information into context of previous published information. He also adds additional information about the victims and a potential victim.
Sullivan has said that this will be the last Bundy book and completes his extensive true crime investigative series, but it should be noted that he is clearly an expert on Bundy at this point so one never knows what the future holds. In any case, his final volume on Bundy wraps up years of research and information and will be a must read for those who follow the case of this horrific serial killer.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of WildBlue Press.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

If She Wakes

If She Wakes by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company: 5/14/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316294003 

If She Wakes by Michael Koryta is a very highly recommended, fast-paced thriller.

Tara Beckley, a senior at Hammel College in Maine, is the contact person to drive visiting lecturer Amandi Oltamu  to the venue where he will give a presentation related to his work on batteries and solar panels. Tara, following Oltamu's request, has parked the car by a walking bridge when a van hits them, killing Oltamu and leaves Tara in a vegetative state. After the driver of the vehicle who hit them confesses, everyone assumes it was an accident, but Abby Kaplan, an insurance investigator, doesn't believe that is the case. As a former racer and stunt driver, Abby knows how cars behave at high speeds.

As Abby continues her investigation she gets Oltamu's phone which she hopes hold clues. Tara regains consciousness, but is a victim of locked-in syndrome, which means she's fully alert but unable to move or communicate. To further complicate matters a young killer, Dax Blackwell, has been hired to make sure Tara can never say what happened, silence Abby, and get Oltamu's phone.

This is an tension-filled, exciting, fast-paced thriller that will hold your attention from beginning to end. A high level of suspense is sustained throughout the novel and the cold, malevolent calculating actions of Dax increase the fear and make the dread palpable. The quality of the writing is excellent and the plot moves quickly as each chapter alternates between the points-of-view of different characters. The various plot threads all begin to weave together, which makes the suspense created by the complicated, dangerous plot even more heart-stopping.

All of the characters are well-developed and you will fiercely care about what happens to them. Koryta gives all of these these characters a backstory, making them realistic with their own fears and motivations. These are not unreliable characters. They feel as real as a close friend, so the situation they are in is heartbreaking and heart-stopping. Even with plot twists, that also feel believable, these characters continue to experience growth - even through the fear.

If I had one bit of doubt, it was Tara experiencing the locked-in syndrome and medical professionals not realizing it sooner. On the other hand, I am not a medical professional, so perhaps it is possible. A strong 4.5 rounded up.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Orange World and Other Stories

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
Knopf Doubleday: 5/14/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525656135

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell is a very highly recommended collection of eight short stories.
This remarkable, memorable collection is impressive in both the writing and the story telling. Russell captures basic human truths and presents them in her curious tales. The well-written, off-beat stories have a basis in magic realism and make the bizarre seem normal. They can be strangely funny while also deeply emotional. The whole collection is truly reminiscent of Twilight Zone episodes.

The stories include:
The Prospectors: Two young women who call themselves the prospectors have an unforgettable night at a mountain lodge.
The Bad Graft: A woman becomes the host of the spirit of a Joshua Tree.
Bog Girl: A first romance blossoms between a young man and a girl he found buried in the peat of a bog.
Madame Bovary’s Greyhound: The inner thoughts and devotion of a young greyhound and her fickle mistress.
The Tornado Auction: A retired tornado farmer decides to take a chance and risk it all on raising one more tornado.
Black Corfu: A doctor whose job is to make sure the dead stay dead.
The Gondoliers: Four sisters who call themselves the Gondoliers, use echolocation by singing in order to navigate while poling people through the canals of New Florida 
Orange World: A new mother made a pact for the safety of her baby and is now breast feeding the devil.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Night Window

The Night Window by Dean Koontz
Random House; 5/14/19
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525484707
Jane Hawk Series #5

The Night Window by Dean Koontz is a very highly recommended fifth and final book in the Jane Hawk series of thrillers. Jane is an amazing character and this is an extremely satisfying end to the series.
The Night Window follows several characters in two main narratives in the plot, as well as several additional story lines in the sub-plots. In the first, Warwick Hollister, the billionaire behind the Techno Arcadians, invites a young filmmaker to his Colorado retreat where he tells the young man everything - and then, as a snow storm moves in, he sets out to hunt him for sport. In the ongoing story of Jane's attempt to keep Travis hidden from the bad guys as she tries to expose the Techno Arcadians, she is joined by Vikram Rangnekar, a brilliant former FBI coder who has left back doors into many key agencies and is acquiring proof of the conspiracy, including names of those involved and those on their kill list. Additionally there are all sorts of other complications and heart-pounding threats.

Obviously, when you reach book five of a series, you know these characters as the ongoing characters were previously introduced and established in earlier books. Vikram is a remarkable new character and I liked him very much. I also love the down-to-earth common-sense characters encountered along the way that aren't gullible or easily led and have their own thoughts and suspicions about what is going on.

Koontz's storytelling and writing is pitch-perfect and he provides a great conclusion to an exciting series! I was glued to the pages and simply couldn't read fast enough. When I was nearing the end of the book, I didn't see an end in sight and was sure that there was going to be a book six to wrap it all up, so the clever, resourceful, and twisty ending took me completely by surprise. And it was awesome! Additionally there are some words of wisdom along the way that could behoove all of us to ponder in the current media possessed cultural atmosphere.

The series contains: The Silent Corner; The Whispering Room; The Crooked Staircase; The Forbidden Door; and The Night Window. While you could start with this final, stunning conclusion, I would suggest reading the whole series in order. Some installments are stronger than others, but together they are an outstanding series. And don't let the page count intimidate you - you will fly through these books. They are all truly "just-one-more-chapter" un-put-down-able books and since Koontz provides short chapters, you will be saying it repeatedly.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Things My Son Needs to Know about the World

Things My Son Needs to Know about the World by Fredrik Backman
Simon & Schuster: 5/7/19
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501196867 

Things My Son Needs to Know about the World by Fredrik Backman is a very highly recommended collection of personal essays about being a father. One of the best collections of the year!

I didn't think I could possibly love Fredrik Backman's writing more than I do and then I feel in love all over again with this collection of essays he has written to his son and for other new fathers. These essays are hilarious, touching, and heartfelt. Even more importantly, they include things a father needs to pass on to his son, as well as insights for other fathers into the whole culture-change of having a child. 

They include tidbits of essential wisdom, like:
"There’s a hell of a lot to keep track of. Diaper bags. Car seats. Nursery rhymes. Extra socks. Poop. Above all, poop. There’s a lot of poop to keep track of. It’s nothing personal. You can ask any parent with small children. That whole first year, jeez, your entire life revolves around poop.
"[W]hen the preschool teachers refer to something as 'nature’s own candy,' they almost always mean raisins and almost never bacon."
"[T]hat is how you complete the final level of Monkey Island 3. Your mother can roll her eyes all she wants. I am not risking this knowledge dying with my generation."
"This parenthood thing didn’t come with instructions, that’s all I’m saying. You spit on the napkin. Then you wipe the child’s face with the napkin. You don’t spit straight onto the child. My bad."
"The nurses really don’t like it when you use the words “house-train” in relation to children."

The collection includes his longer personal essays with humorous side notes interspersed between them.Essays include: To my son; What you need to know about motion-sensitive bathroom lights; What you need to know about IKEA; What you need to know about soccer; What you need to know about stuff; What you need to know about being a man; What you need to know about God and airports; What you need to know about what happened to the singing plastic giraffe; What you need to know about why that Felicia girl’s mother hates me; What you need to know about good and evil; What you need to know about starting a band; What you need to know about love; What you need to know about when I hold your hand a little too tight.

The writing is simply wonderful. This is an excellent choice for new parents who are right in the throes of experiencing parenthood for the first time, but it also will be appreciated by parents who are seasoned veterans and will remember back when it was all new. As usual, underneath the humor are some essential insights into human nature that you will find in Backman's novels too.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Year of the Orphan

Year of the Orphan by Daniel Findlay
Simon & Schuster: 5/7/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781628729948

Year of the Orphan by Daniel Findlay is a recommended dystopian set in a post-apocalyptic future.

The orphan's family was killed and she was sold into slavery as a child to the Old Man in the corrupt settlement known as the System. She makes a living looking for scrape buried in the sand-blasted landscape of the Australian Outback. As she treks across the land on foot or riding her sand ship, she is constantly pursued by the Reckoner. She needs to escape from him and the ghosts she encounters, as well as other creatures, human or animal.
The story is excellent, after you fight and struggle your way through the broken, invented language. For those willing to invest the time to work their way through the language, the plot provides a great payback, but the language is also the great stumbling block in this post-apocalyptic thriller. The orphan is a great character, and is well developed, but, again, you have to fight your way through the invented dialect to learn this.

Basically, the dialect will hinder the story for many readers, so I can't say this is a well-written book. It is well-conceived and plotted, but the language becomes a stumbling block that most readers will have to make a conscious choice to power through. In the end I was glad I forced myself to keep reading for the narrative, but there were times when I was ready to toss the novel aside because sometimes the language just felt like too much work.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Light from Other Stars

Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler
Bloomsbury: 5/7/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781635573169

Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler is a highly recommended coming-of-age science fiction story.

The dual narrative follows two different stories set in two different time periods. In 1986, eleven-year-old Nedda Papas is living in Easter Florida, a Space Coast town, where she can't wait to grow up and become an astronaut. Theo, her father is a physicist, a college professor who was laid off from NASA, but he has an ongoing project, Crucible, that manipulates time by controlling entropy in an effort to extend Nedda's childhood. Betheen, her distant mother, is a baker and a chemist. Both of her parents, unknown to Nedda, are still mourning the loss of her brother, Michael, several years earlier. On the day after the Challenger disaster, another disaster befalls the town of Easter, which also affects Nedda's best friend Denny and her father. Nedda turns to Betheen to find a solution.

In the future Nedda is an astronaut aboard the Chawla, a four-person spacecraft en route to colonize a faraway planet to save humanity. Nedda and her crew mates are facing several trials, but now are doomed if they can't find a solution to a crisis that is threatening all of their lives and the mission. Nedda's past may actually hold the answer for a way to solve their current crisis.

The narrative alternates between the two time periods and the two stories, with Nedda (and by association Betheen) being the connection between the two vastly different narratives. For me, the young Nedda was the better developed character and the earlier timeline/story was much more compelling. I admittedly read the future chapters a bit faster to get back to the coming-of-age story and the disaster befalling her friend Denny and her dad Theo. It also allows the closeness of Betheen and Nedda now make more sense, and truly highlight the sacrifices that women often make for the good of everyone.

The writing is very good and the two plots are compelling for their own reasons. As a long-time reader of hard science fiction, I didn't find the science intimidating, but it would be easy to breeze over it and get on with the story for those who want to do so. The greater story is the examination of progress, finding meaning in your work, sacrifices, passions, determination, and the relationships between people in various contexts - parents, children, friends.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury.

The Last Time I Saw You

The Last Time I Saw You by Liv Constantine
HarperCollins: 5/7/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062868817

The Last Time I Saw You by Liv Constantine is a recommended psychological thriller.

Dr. Kate English is shocked when her mother, a beloved philanthropist, is found murdered. Kate lives an enviable life style as a wealthy heiress and doctor. She has a handsome husband and a daughter. After the death, she reaches out to and rekindles her friendship with her high school friend, Blaire Barrington. When Kate receives a text message saying that she is next, Kate tells Blaire, who begins to investigate all of Kate's friends and relatives to unearth the killer. As the text messages continue, can the killer be caught before Kate is the next victim?

This psychological thriller does delivery on the tension and suspense as the threats to Kate's life continue. Expect a long laundry list of suspects and numerous motives in this soap opera of a thriller. Although the characters aren't very well developed or believable, and the plot is predictable, it does keep things moving along with one twist after another in The Last Time I Saw You. Some readers are going to find the whole lifestyle of the rich and famous vibe ever present in this novel way-over-the-top, and it is. While you want her to find closure at the beginning, it must be noted that Kate becomes increasingly annoying as a character. The narrative starts out strong and holds your attention until things begin to falter and become tedious. 

This is a good choice for an airplane book or vacation read. It will keep you entertained and serve to pass the time, but if you should set it aside you won't be devastated.

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

The Book of Flora

The Book of Flora by Meg Elison
47North: 4/23/19
eBook review copy; 332 pages
ISBN-13: 9781542042093

The Book of Flora by Meg Elison is a recommended concluding book in the postapocalyptic series that started with The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.

Picking up from where the second book, The Book of Etta, left off, The Book of Flora tells the story of Flora.  Now living in a community on Bambritch Island that is awaiting the invasion of an army headed for them, Flora tells her story looking back over the last forty years. She tells of life in the underground city of Ommun, her visit to Shy, and travels across the post-plague land until she reaches Bambritch Island. The novel switches between the story of the past that led her to her present situation, and the present as the community waits to be attacked. Flora's story includes that of characters found in the previous book.

At this point, having read all three books in the series my advice would be to read the first in the series, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, and then stop. Parts of this final book in the series make it worth reading if you have already read the second book, but this time the whole book really fell flat for me. What I mentioned in the review for the previous book holds true and is multiplied tenfold in this final installment. "The focus and anxiety over gender questions among several characters is almost overwrought, taking up more pages of anxiety than would seem necessary in this changed world." In this concluding narrative, the pages and pages and chapters of focus on gender identity is simply too over-the-top. I get it, don't beat me up with it, state the facts while establishing your characters and get on with the story. I'm reading for the plot and character development. Please don't lecture me. I forced myself to keep reading only to find out who was going to attack and what happened. (I'm being generous with my rating.)

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

The Red Daughter

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz
Random House Publishing Group: 4/30/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400068463 

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz is a recommended fictionalized historical account of the defection of Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin.

In 1967 at the age of 41, Svetlana Alliluyeva defected and came to America, abandoning her children, 16 and 21, in Moscow. A lawyer, Peter Horvath, is recruited by the CIA to assist the State Department in smuggling her into the USA. Her instant notoriety gains her some fame, but she claims she wants to live a simple American life. After sending Svetlana numerous letters, the widow of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright finally persuades her to visit the cult-like community in Arizona at Taliesin West. She ends up quickly marrying again, has another child, and it ends badly. She increasingly turns to Peter for support.
The novel is a fictionalized account based on the files of the author’s father, Alan U. Schwartz, who was the lawyer who accompanied Svetlana Alliluyeva to the United States. Schwartz has used his father's notes and years of research to create this fictionalized story based on historical facts.  What is clearly presented is that Svetlana was a tortured woman who, with her personal history, would have struggled with life to some extent no matter where she lived.

The technical quality writing is excellent. In the narrative, the course of Svetlana's life is based on known facts, but the emotions and feelings are all deductions. Fictional journal entries help develop her character while tell her past and present story. The novel is based on her life, but also has a huge heaping dose of added artistic license; so, the factual events of her life are captured, but the emotional turmoil is more of an extrapolation of what she might have been feeling or thinking. While reading the pacing and narrative felt uneven. Some parts of the novel soar and move quickly, others drag slowly along.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House Publishing Group.