Sunday, June 30, 2019

American Predator

American Predator by Maureen Callahan
Penguin Random House: 7/2/19
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525428640

American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan is the very highly recommended account of the serial killer Israel Keyes.

This is one truly frightening examination of a serial killer. "... Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as "a force of pure evil," Keyes was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried "kill kits" - cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools - in remote locations across the country. Over the course of fourteen years, Keyes would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger's house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home to Alaska, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter." That description alone should give everyone pause, but reading about what he did and what he is suspected of doing is even more frightening.

In 2012 eighteen-year-old Samantha Koenig was abducted from the Anchorage, Alaska, coffee kiosk where she worked. The multi-jurisdictional investigation resulted in Keyes being arrested in Texas. If he hadn't made a few mistakes, Keyes would still likely be randomly finding new victims today.  Journalist Maureen Callahan follows closely the investigation by law enforcement officials, and includes information from classified FBI files, the questioning of him, interviews with officials, his psychological profile, and research into Keyes' life. Although he never confessed to all his victims, he is believed to have killed at least eleven people. This is a scary but compelling comprehensive account of a modern day serial killer.
American Predator is a fascinating but horrific exploration of the life of a modern day serial killer which should be on the reading list of everyone who reads true crime books. 

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

The Gifted School

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger
Penguin Random House: 7/2/19
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525534969

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger is a highly recommended domestic drama about parental ambition for their children.

The prestigious community of Crystal, Colorado, is about to be one of the communities whose children will be able to attend the areas new magnet school for gifted children in grades six through 12. Of course admission hinges on receiving a high enough score on the IQ test, along with other requirements. The Gifted School follows a group of families where the four women, who have been friends for over a decade, are all about getting their precious gifted children into the school. The drama ensues as the meddling and competitiveness commences and friendships begin to fall apart.

This is a great choice for a summer read. It is full of gossipy scandal and parents behaving pretentiously and badly. The children aren't perfect either, just FYI. There is plenty of friction between parents/friends and the children themselves. The one huge thing The Gifted School has going for it is the timeliness of the plot with the whole college admissions scandal. The involvement of these parents in their children's lives, looking at their abilities as a reflection of their own prestige, is eye-opening and, in some ways, horrific. Being caught up believing that your child is the best and most gifted of all the gifted children in all the land is nothing new. We've had these parents among us for years. Holsinger captures that essence of bad parenting as it merges with privilege, questionable ethics, and the parent's own competitiveness.
The novel is well crafted and the plot moves along at a good pace, building up the tension and anticipation until the final climax, which is explosive. The narrative is told through several alternating points-of-view, so you can follow everyone's poor choices and become acquainted with all the characters, including the children. The different points-of-view result in the characters being all well-developed, and almost universally unlikable - with one lone, long-suffering exception. The biggest hurdle to overcome while reading The Gifted School is the occasional sheer repulsiveness of the parents, and their questionable ethics and choices.

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Disappeared

The Disappeared by Amy Lord
Unbound Publishing: 5/2/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781789650273


The Disappeared by Amy Lord is a recommended dystopian novel set in a totalitarian state that controls books.

Clara saw her father when he disappeared. He was arrested based on the books he loved and taught about. Now Clara is a teacher in this changed Britain and she works as a literature professor.  She convinces her partner, Simon, a history professor, that they should teach a class about history and about  banned books. This happens. There are consequences. Arrests. There is an underground rebellion. By the way, Clara's mother married the Major who arrested her father, so a highly placed enforcer of the Authorization Bureau is her step-father.
If you enjoy reading dystopians, The Disappeared will fit the bill for one based on banned books. The point-of-views of Clara and the Major are shared in alternating narratives. That said, although this is written in the vein of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984, it is not even remotely as good as either novel. Go to the originals for that experience. None of the characters are especially well-developed. The dialogue is stilted. The rise and hold over the public of the actual regime is not well explained. Several events were mentioned, but nothing firmly established the background. Sorry, but Clara makes so many senseless mistakes and slips that it makes it difficult to sympathize with her. Why would she not expect to be watched considering who her stepfather is? Why take notes?
This is an okay dystopian that will serve to pass the time. It is not destined to be enshrined the halls of great fore-thinking literature. This is a good choice for an airplane book or vacation read. It'll pass the time but you won't cry if you lose it, misplace it, or never finish it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Unbound Publishing.

Big Sky

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Little Brown and Company: 6/25/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316523097
Jackson Brodie Series #5

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson is the very highly recommended fifth book in the Jackson Brodie series. It is good to see him back, working as a private investigator in a seaside village.

Coincidences are the key to a great return of Jackson Brodie. As with the last Brodie novel (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011) there is a large cast of characters and a whole lot going on that has little to do with Brodie - until it does. Brodie is part time father to his son, Nathan, and caring for his aging lab while on a case documenting the actions of a cheating spouse when he gets tangled up in a cold case involving human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children that isn't so cold after all. DC Reggie Chase returns, working with DC Ronnie Dibicki

There are complete stories and background information involving all of the characters that eventually all intertwine into a complicated plot. There are some great characters here, some villains, but others that are simply unknowingly entangled in the mystery. Harry is a great character, and it will surprise you how much you will like Crystal. Atkinson slowly introduces her characters, develops them, and then allows them to interact and connects all the pieces of the mystery together.

This is an exceptional, well-written mystery with multiple storylines, complicated well-developed characters and an intricate plot. In some ways I think it is better to read Big Sky with little background information and just experience it for yourself. At first you may not know how all these random people and stories are all connected, but as more information is disclosed and characters begin to interact, it will begin to become more apparent and the action and pace of the novel will escalate. 

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

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Not Good Enough Mother

The Not Good Enough Mother by Sharon Lamb
Beacon Press: 6/25/19
eBook review copy; 200 pages
ISBN-13: 9780807082461

The Not Good Enough Mother by Sharon Lamb is a personal, highly recommended account pf a psychologist who evaluates the fitness of parents.

Psychologist and expert witness Dr. Sharon Lamb observes children and evaluates parents after the children have been removed from their custody. She observes and takes notes, assessing the fitness of parents in order to determine what is in the best interest of the child. Her evaluations will either recommend that the child be returned to their parent or that parental rights should be terminated, opening the children up for adoption. It is a decision that is not always clear.

As many of these parents struggle with addiction, Dr. Lamb's own son struggles with an opioid addiction, which makes evaluating other parents even more challenging on a personal level. Since mother's are often the ones being evaluated to determine if they are "good enough mothers," Dr. Lamb turns the question on herself, is she a "good enough mother?" She knows the daily struggle of an addict to remain clean. She knows the relapses, the lies, and the statistics as she tries to remain compassionate to those she is evaluating, while at the same time keeping above all else the best interest of the child. And, as a mother, she knows that mothers always look for blame in themselves when their children make bad life choices.

Individual situations and cases are discussed with an informative eye for detail and information about what she looks for and observes during various home visits and meetings. The result is a narrative that is both informative and heart-breakingly personal. As a professional, she needs to have boundaries and keep a sense of detachment while she also has a plethora of first hand personal experience with an addict. In concise language and succinct case/visit summaries, she provides details and information in a controlled, neutral manner, keeping her emotions in check, while informing readers what she does and of what she takes note. Her professional neutrality is almost at odds with her personal experiences, providing the reader with the sense of a dichotomy she experiences between her professional life and personal experiences. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Last House Guest

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda
Simon & Schuster: 6/18/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501165375

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda is a very highly recommended mystery set along the coast in Maine.

Littleport, Maine is a summer playground for the wealthy and a simple harbor community dependent on tourism for the year-round residents. One surname that stands above all the others is Loman. The Loman's not only own a remarkable mansion on the shore, they also own a large number of rental properties currently managed by Avery Greer. Avery is a local, but she is best friends with Sadie Loman for almost a decade and has been welcomed into the Loman fold. They have stepped in to help after her parents and grandmother died and Avery had no one.

At the end of the summer in 2017 the young twenty-something adults are throwing their traditional last party of the year. Avery is setting it up at one of the Loman rentals while Sadie plans to meet her there later. Avery texts Sadie, but never gets an answer. The party gets underway and while Avery is keeping an eye open for Sadie, she never shows. When the police come to talk to Sadie's older brother, Parker, Avery learns that Sadie was found dead. It was ruled a suicide but now, as the anniversary of her death approaches in 2018, Avery can't help but look into Sadie's death on her own - especially after her phone is found in a chest of blankets in the cottage where the party was.

The narrative alternates between events in 2017 and 2018. Avery is a wonderful character, well developed and complex. She has a past, but has overcome much to get where she is now. And she's smart. She knows there is something going on, that someone is lying because Sadie wouldn't kill herself, but there are several suspects and chief among them is Avery, so she has to covertly begin to investigate what happened and piece clues together on her own if she wants answers.

This is an excellent mystery - and the key to my enjoyment is viewing The Last House Guest as a mystery rather than a thriller. With the flood of thrillers on the market, it is refreshing to read a mystery. A murder has happened under suspicious circumstances and we have out intrepid heroine trying to piece together clues in order to figure out what really happened. Avery is clever and it was enjoyable to follow her investigation as well as get her insights into all the people involved. This is a wonderful choice for summer reading. The pacing is great as the narrative alternates between what happened in 2017 and Avery's clandestine investigation in 2018. I especially enjoyed the conclusion of the novel. It was a well-played climax and a fitting ending.

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Cutting Room

The Cutting Room by Ashley Dyer
HarperCollins Publishers: 6/18/19
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062797704

The Cutting Room by Ashley Dyer is a very highly recommended police procedural/thriller with Detectives Lake and Carver on the search for a serial killer.

Detectives Ruth Lake and Greg Carver are searching for a serial killer in Liverpool, England, where men are disappearing. When they arrived at the first crime scene, they are shocked to see sections of human brains encased in plexiglass and set up as an art installation on display for everyone to see. The gruesome crime scene becomes even more surreal when a crowd of people show up at the scene, to see, photograph, and film the "art" and the investigators. The serial killer is dubbed the Ferryman and is gaining a wide following across social media. The brain sections belonged to three of the missing men. It becomes clear that the Ferryman is a narcissistic exhibitionist psychopath who craves an audience and accolades for his ghastly exhibitions. He alerts both the detectives and his groupies via social media whenever he sets up a new installation.

Both Ruth and Carver are still recovering from their last run-in with a killer, but focus on finding this latest fiend. Ruth never forgets a face and she closely examines photos of all the people who show up at the crime scenes. After his head injury, Carver sees auras and experiences synesthesia which allows him to read people's emotions. The two work to overcome or hide any personal issues while searching for the killer, and this looks like it might be too personal to Ruth.

Chapters follow the point-of-view of Ruth and Carver, with brief passages from the killer presented between. Both Ruth and Carver are interesting, complicated, intelligent, well-developed characters. Following their investigation and the actions of the killer is absorbing and engaging. The tension is palatable as the duo work together looking for the killer, while still keeping some personal information to themselves.

This is an excellent police procedural/ thriller that is completely engrossing. The quality of the writing is outstanding. Dyer (a pen name of former CWA chair Margaret Murphy and forensic expert Helen Pepper writing together) creates a complex plot, an intricate investigation, and well developed characters. There are twists and false leads. The forensics details are fascinating. The killer's focus on social media followers is a timely, subtle social commentary. This is the second book in the Carver and Lake series; the first is Splinter in the Blood.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Starter Wife

The Starter Wife by Nina Laurin
Grand Central Publishing: 6/11/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781538715710

The Starter Wife by Nina Laurin is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Claire is the younger second wife of Byron Westcott, a professor of literature at Ohio’s Mansfield College. They have been married for two years and Claire is happy, but it seems like Byron is becoming more distant. Byron's first wife, painter Colleen May, also a Mansfield professor, committed suicide five years before, but her body was never found. Now Claire is beginning to wonder what really happened to Colleen, especially when she receives a phone call from a woman she is sure is Colleen.

Claire is the narrator of this riveting, dark, tension-filled psychological thriller, but there is a second narrative voice that belongs to an unnamed woman who may be stalking Claire and out to destroy her. The unnamed stalker is obsessed with Byron and wants Claire out of the way. Could it be Colleen? Claire begins to investigate her death and Byron's past, while at the same time suffering from unexplained illnesses. Did Byron kill Colleen and is he now out to eliminate Claire?

While you won't necessarily like Claire, the suspense escalates with the second narrator who seems to be out to get Claire. Byron may also be a part of the scheme. It is a trend now to have unlikeable female narrators and, while this follows along that well-traveled path, the ending was a totally surprising twist. The Starter Wife is a novel that you have to wait until the final third of the book for some shocking and surprising incidents.

It is not until the end that I found myself admiring the skillful writing, the intricate plot, and the excellent character development. I thought I knew what was going on and where the story was headed, which is exactly the way I imagine Laurin planned out her novel. Well played Nina Laurin; I was totally surprised and caught unaware.

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

Those People

Those People by Louise Candlish
Penguin Random House: 6/11/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451489142

Those People by Louise Candlish is a recommended domestic thriller.

In Lowland Way the houses are all perfectly maintained and the neighbors all get along - until Darren and Jodie move into the house he inherited. They arrive at the house on the corner lot and immediately begin an unsightly renovation project leaving piles of debris everywhere. Darren is undertaken all the work himself, in between working on the overabundance of vehicles he brought with him to start an illegal used car business from his home. If matters could be even worse, along with all the construction noise they blast heavy metal music late into the night. The stress becomes overwhelming to the couple with an infant who live next door to the noise, and to the older woman who begins to lose her excellent rating, customers, and her source of income at the bed and breakfast she runs out of her home. Adding to the fracas is the truculent, hostile attitude Darren seemingly exhibits to anyone who questions his choices.

The beginning of the story is told through flashbacks, and from different character's point-of view, beginning eight weeks previously and leading up to the day an unexpected death occurs. There are police interviews with various neighbors about the death which are included between chapters. This is a slow burner of a novel as the various characters are introduced and the conflict between the neighbors is developed slowly and hidden resentments come to light.  Since we know right from the start that an unexpected death has happened, the beginning of the novel consists of looking for clues as we meet all the neighbors and all of the neighbors are discussing various actions to get rid of Darren.

None of the characters are particularity likeable and not all of them are as well developed as others. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that many of the good neighbors aren't quite as perfect as they think and that there were underlying problems in many of the relationships before Darren moved in and stirred things up. Many readers who has experienced having challenging neighbors, will feel some sympathy for the neighbors who want to keep Lowland Way looking like an ideal neighborhood, have everyone voluntarily follow their rules, and keep their property values high.
The writing is good, although I found the plot a little too slow moving and certain plot elements required setting disbelief aside. The narrative does draw on a common theme that many people can relate to - the "bad" neighbors, "those people," who are disrupting the normal flow of life on the street. Alternating the points-of-view leading up to death worked well, but after the death some of the incentive to keep reading is lost. The final denouement was a surprise, but the lead up to it could have been tightened up a bit to keep the plot moving along at a little brisker pace. This is a solid summer read.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Man of the Year

Man of the Year by Caroline Louise Walker
Gallery Books: 304 pages
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781982100452 

Man of the Year by Caroline Louise Walker is a recommended character driven psychological thriller.

Dr. Robert Hart has just been named Man of the Year in Sag Harbor, but that award may have been premature. His beautiful second wife, Elizabeth, is there to witness his acceptance speech, along with his son, Jonah, and Jonah's friend, Nick. But when Robert notices that Nick may be paying a bit too much attention to Elizabeth, and that she is responding, he is not thrilled when Elizabeth invites Nick to stay in their guest house for the summer. Robert needs to take matters into his own hands and get Nick out. One lie seems to lead to another and before long Robert is trying to cover his tracks.

The first part of Man of the Year is told exclusively through Robert's voice, which makes it challenging because the man is not a likeable or compelling character. His paranoia can be over-the-top.  After a shocking event, the second part of the novel takes over. At this point other voices add to the narrative and make the totality a more fascinating and intricate web of details and lies. In the end, none of the characters are particularity likeable, but the complicated lies and subtle threats they all undertake certainly will hold your attention. I liked the different voices relating what happened and their own deceits through their point-of-view. This added a nice layer to the story that was desperately needed after so many chapters of Robert's narrative.
This would be a good choice for a summer vacation read or an airplane book. It will hold your attention, but you aren't going to cry if you should lose or misplace the book and never finish it. The writing is good enough to take note of Walker as an author to watch.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery Books


Tiny by Kim Hooper
Turner Publishing Company: 6/11/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781684422425

Tiny by Kim Hooper is a highly recommended about three people grieving and dealing with a tragedy.
Nate and Annie Forester's three year old daughter, Penny, was hit by a truck in a tragic accident. Nate is in denial, trying to go on with life and hold it all in. He has returned to work, because someone has to bring in some money. Annie is inconsolable and unable to move beyond her overwhelming grief. Annie doesn't comprehend how Nate can go on as normal. The couple is becoming increasingly distant with each other as they grow apart.
Josh is a young man who was driving the truck that hit Penny. It was an accident. She ran out in front of his truck. He wasn't speeding, but couldn't stop in time. The accident has also changed his life. He wants to find a way to talk to Nate and Annie, to apologize. He begins watching their house, when he sees Annie leave, suitcase in hand, one morning and later sees Nate return home and subsequently distressed, holding a note, presumably from Annie. From watching the couple, Josh knows where Annie went - to a small community of people living in tiny houses. He wants to tell Nate what he knows, but doesn't understand how to approach him.
This is a heartbreaking novel as every person is grieving and unable to meaningfully communicate and share their feelings and inner thoughts with each other. The writing is very good. Hooper captures the overwhelming grief all the characters are going through and how they are acting after the tragedy. The death of a child is always difficult. When it is due to an accident, when there is no clear fault, the questions of what if can take over for everyone involved. Hooper handles this in a compassionate and understanding way while propelling her characters forward in her plot. The characters are all well developed and you will care about what happens to all three of them. The ending is a wonderful denouement and offers hope.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Turner Publishing Company.

The Good Sister

The Good Sister by Gillian McAllister
Penguin Random House: 6/11/19
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525539391

The Good Sister by Gillian McAllister is a highly recommended novel detailing the relationship between two sisters and a riveting courtroom drama.
Martha and Becky are sisters who have always had a close relationship. The novel opens after with Becky is about to stand trial for suffocating Martha's 8-week-old baby, Layla who died under her aunt Becky's care. Martha refuses to believe that Becky is guilty, but all the evidence seems to point to her. Becky was acting as a nanny for Martha. Layla was a difficult baby, who cried incessantly from what may have been acid reflux, and was unconsolable. When Martha had to leave town for two days and her husband Scott is at a conference, Becky is left in charge of Layla and Layla is found dead under her care.
The novel alternates chapters between the point-of-view of the two sisters and also follows the trial as witnesses give testimony. The result is that the reader is privy to hidden feelings of resentment on Becky's part, and Martha's hidden quest to prove that Becky is innocent and someone else was there and guilty. The perspective of many of the witnesses is also presented before they take the stand, with their testimony following, which clearly shows how everything can be twisted to mean something else.
McAllister does a skillful job developing the characters into real individuals, and the close relationship between the sisters is believable. At the same time, she keeps the tension rising as new personal revelations between the sisters is revealed and as each new witness takes the stand. It begs the question: Can you really know another person, even someone you think you know?  And how will the extended family handle a situation that is almost guaranteed to tear any family apart?

The writing is excellent and the plot is well-presented and well-executed. Even the most seemingly innocent event can be twisted to mean something else.  The courtroom scenes are believable and heartbreaking. Even if you have an idea of what happened (and I did right from the start) it won't diminish your enjoyment of this novel. This is a wonderful courtroom drama and will hold your attention from beginning to end.

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

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Paper Wasp

The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora
Grove/Atlantic: 6/11/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802129413

The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora is a highly recommended, dark, twisted tale of a friendship between two women.

Abby Graven is stuck at her parent's house in Michigan working as a cashier in a supermarket. She obsessively creates detailed drawings of visions from her dreams that are often premonitory, and she follows the films of director, Auguste Perren. She also obsessively follows the acting career of her former best friend, Elise Van Dijk. When Abby and Elise reconnect at their ten-year high school reunion, a drunken Elise gives Abby her private number. Later Abby shows up in Hollywood and calls Elise. This results in a renewal of their friendship as Elise confesses she has no real friends and she invites Abby to stay with her. Abby becomes a pillar of support, a confidante, and a personal assistant to Elise.

Abby watches as Elise drinks too much, dates an arrogant, narcissistic man, and doubts her abilities while resenting the other egotistical actresses around her, but she also claims to be an artist, which embitters Abby. This novel shows the weird, dark side of Los Angeles and Hollywood. It also brings Abby closer to her idle, Auguste Perren, and his Rhizome retreat/compound, which teaches actors to use their dreams. Elise attends as if it is nothing, but Abby has obsessed with being there for years and religiously follows and practices Perren's dream-imaging techniques. At the same time Abby is still having her dream/visions and drawing them.
As would be expected, this reconnection is not going to result in anything good. Told in the second person, this is a disquieting, twisted, ominous novel that is the story of an uneven friendship, obsessions, a confession of hidden secrets, and a dairy of stealthy plans. Even when you know it is going to take a foreboding turn, it still will hold your attention, and the turn it does take is simultaneously unexpected and obvious.
The writing is excellent, even while it is taking bizarre turns, and you will find yourself compulsively reading just one more chapter. The ending is frightening and ominous, but Abby can explain and justify every turn she takes, as if it were all predetermined - which it has been through her dream visions. If it sounds like this is a rather odd visionary tale, it is. It is akin to a diary written to your obsessions.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove/Atlantic.

Above the Ether

Above the Ether by Eric Barnes
Arcade Publishing: 6/11/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781628729986

Above the Ether by Eric Barnes is a highly recommended prequel to his climate change science fiction novel The City Where We Once Lived.

The stories of six sets of vastly different characters are told in short vignettes set in the climate changed world Barnes first created in The City Where We Once Lived. The weather patterns are unpredictable and violent, while the ground is poisoned, and the government is unable to provide any assistance. This novel covers the changes before, that led to the world he created. None of his characters are given names, rather they are named by a description. We follow the stories of: a father and his two children fleeing a tsunami in the Gulf; an investor making money betting on disasters; a couple punishing themselves over their sons addictions, while wildfires rage around them; a doctor and his wife living in a refugee camp for immigrants; a young man with a violent past and present is working at a carnival; and the manager of a fast food chain in a city of fierce winds. The different characters and their stories converge on the city which is half abandoned and the setting for The City Where We Once Lived.

The writing and the stories are presented in a dream-like, fragmented manner in a harsh apocalyptic setting. This is one of those novels that you will either commit to finishing or you will set it aside. While the characters are going through turmoil and unbelievable hardships, Barnes seems to purposefully keep his characters set apart, at a distance from the readers, as if they are just another small group of diverse people suffering. The writing simply tells their story while holding the reader at a distance - until the end. It is left up to the reader to decide if they will care or not - or if they feel this reality he has created will mirror our own world. It is definitely bleak and almost hopeless, as there is a glimmer of people coming together and helping each other at the end.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Arcade Publishing.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker

Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker by Kathleen Hale
Grove/Atlantic: 6/4/19
eBook review copy; 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802129093

Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker by Kathleen Hale is a highly recommended collection of six previously published essays that have been revised since their original publication. This is a collection described as portraying both predator and prey. In these autobiographical essays, Kathleen Hale openly and candidly discusses her mental health and presents/confesses clearly and consistently several difficult incidents in her life. She never tries to present herself as above the fray or better than others.

Contents include:
Catfish: An essay rehashing the 2014 catfishing by a G.R. YA reviewer and Hale's response, which was to catfish and stalk the reviewer. (More on this later.) 
Prey: Hale recounts her sexual assault as a first year college student and the two trials in which she testified against her attacker. This is the strongest essay in the collection.
I Hunted Feral Hogs as a Favor to the World: Hale and a friend take a trip to hunt feral hogs in Florida.  Although, perhaps the weakest essay in the collection, it does capture the crazy stalker theme.
Cricket: This is a description of a trip to Atlantic City to watch the Miss America pageant, as well as describe the audiences reaction to it.
Snowflake: Hale is allowed to visit, after extensive preparation, a community of people suffering from "environmental illness" which is located in Snowflake, Arizona.
First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.: A pregnant Hale becomes obsessed with a mountain lion living in nearby Hollywood’s Griffith Park and is sure she needs to track it down and kill it before her child is born.

Okay, now to address the elephant in the room. While I obviously don't condone her stalking a reviewer, reviewers have to realize authors can look into their profiles and perhaps expand their research to find out more about their negative and positive reviewers. We also need to admit that "gangs" of negative reviewers can also happen when someone doesn't agree with a differing opinion, and then tells all their friends about their outrage. In 2007 I blogged a negative review. Comments from my readers were in agreement and one respectfully disagreed. Life went on until 2011 when someone online stumbled across the review and proceeded to immediately and repeatedly attacked me and called in their online friends to do the same. I pulled the post down. The stalkerish behavior and trolling can go both ways. (This is an unbiased review of the book. I did not followed the previous "Hale-no" controversy.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove/Atlantic.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
HarperCollins: 6/4/19
eBook review copy; 896 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062458711 

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson is a highly recommended science fiction/fantasy thriller. This is a brilliantly unique novel with great characters and world building established in a cautionary premise.

Richard “Dodge” Forthrast is a multibillionaire from a game company he founded. Now he can enjoy his life, especially spending time with his niece Zula and her daughter Sophia. When something goes wrong during a routine medical procedure, Dodge is pronounce brain dead and put on life support. This is when his family discovers that the will he made many years earlier called for his body to be frozen and stored at a cryonics company. The company is now owned by tech entrepreneur Elmo Shepherd. Legally bound to follow the directive, Dodge's friend Corvallis Kawasaki, who is also the executor of his will, acquiesces. Dodge's brain is scanned and its data structures uploaded and stored in the cloud, until it can eventually be revived.

Years later Dodge's grandniece, Sophia, is able to download Dodge's brain into a digital world. Now Dodge (Egdod) is a god in a bitworld he creates, and other downloaded brains find a place in it. At this point the story alternates between what is going on in Bitworld and the real world, or Meatspace.  Societal structures and power are explored in both worlds. Bitworld resembles a fantasy world, with footholds in ancient mythology and religion, and provides a sort of life after death for those scanned and downloaded into the digital world. 

Fall, or Dodge in Hell is absolutely a grand epic drama, featuring both an entertaining narrative and compelling reading. It  explores the interfacing of human imagination and artificial intelligence and begs the question whether technological breakthroughs are helping or harming humanity. This continues the story in Reamde, with recurring characters from that novel, but is a standalone novel. The writing is consummate Stephenson, so it is a detailed, complex story presented in a massive novel. But the whole story is here, so there is no waiting for a part two.

This is a well-written imaginative novel that explores life and eternity, and combines technology, and spirituality in one literary saga of science fiction and fantasy. The characters in both worlds are well developed and well imagined. The time line is approximately a human life span in Meatspace, but eons in Bitworld. I normally don't read much fantasy, so when the narrative mainly followed Bitworld, it lost a bit of the fascination for me. 4.5 rounded down

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Temper by Layne Fargo
Gallery/Scout Press: 7/2/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781982106720 

Temper by Layne Fargo is a recommended dark psychological thriller set amidst the theater scene.
Chicago actress Kira Rascher has landed a great role in a new play, Temper. The drawback is that the play is being put on at the Indifferent Honest Theater Company and this means she will be working with the toxic director and actor Malcolm Mercer. Joanna Cuyler is the partner and roommate of Malcolm. She knows Malcolm's problems, but she also does not like Kira and sees her as a threat. Kira knows the stories and has been warned about Malcolm, but she is sure she can handle him.
This is a dark story with the narrative alternating between Joanna's and Kira's point-of-view. The alternating narrative helps escalate the tension, documenting the chain of turbulent events that builds up to an inevitable ending. The writing is meritable in this debut thriller and Fargo creates a toxic world for all of her characters. The ending is predestined and unavoidable, which makes the ending predictable, but not shocking or surprising, especially after pages of knowing the inner thoughts of Joanna and Kira.
None of the characters are likeable or trustworthy at all. Both Kira and Joanna are suffering from the repercussions of Malcolm's manipulation and abuse. As the stakes increase, the chapters get shorter, helping to make the pace quicken and the tension rise even faster. The setting is the indie theater scene and these people are basically foreign to my life, which made it easier for me to keep saying, "Leave this behind. Why are you tolerating this?" as I was reading. Finishing does require you to not question why these women would tolerate any of the abuse.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery/Scout Press.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Trace: who killed Maria James?

Trace: who killed Maria James? by Rachael Brown
Scribe Publications PTY Ltd: 7/30/18
Ebook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781925693218

Trace: who killed Maria James? by Rachael Brown is the highly recommended investigation of a cold case that was featured on the  ABC podcast Trace.

This is the compilation of investigative journalist Rachel Brown's sixteen month investigation about a cold case for the Trace ABC podcast. In 1980 single mother Maria James was brutally stabbed to death in the back/living area of her Melbourne bookshop. The killer was never found, leaving her two sons, Mark and Adam, who were 13 and 11 when their mother was murdered, living in a holding pattern with no closure. This is the unsolved case that has always bothered veteran detective Ron Iddles.

Once Brown heard about this case, she asked permission to start looking into it. When she began reviewing the case, she found evidence and leads that were overlooked, information that was never brought to light before, a mistake in the forensic evidence, and suspects that were never seriously considered. Her investigation is heart-breaking and reveals cover-ups and mistakes. It also clearly documents abuse by Catholic priests that was covered up or ignored by the church and evidence may indicate collusion between the church and officials.
I have not listened to the pod casts, but this book clearly presents the case and early information, and then follows Browns examination and exploration of the original cold case before disclosing the new information she finds as she undertakes a review of the evidence. Over the intervening years, there is some new information and evidence that has come to light, as well as officials that are less likely to ignore the evidence that a priest was abusing children and may have been involved. Although the investigation does not lead to a resolution, the Victoria Police have reopened an official investigation of this cold case.
This is a well presented, well written, informative review of the original case and Brown's investigation into the cold case.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribe Publications PTY Ltd.

Whatever It Takes

Whatever It Takes by Jessica Pack
Kensington: 5/28/19
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496718174

Whatever It Takes by Jessica Pack is a recommended story about relationships, a health crisis, lies, and seeking answers.

Sienna Chadwick, 25, is estranged from her husband, Tyson, and living on the family ranch with her father, Mark, when she finds a lump in her breast and is facing a cancer diagnosis. She refuses to tell anyone about it. She does question her father about her mother's cancer. Sienna has always been told that her mother died from breast cancer when she was a toddler. Her father, Mark, however, is evasive about the details of her mother's death and Sienna is wondering why there are all these gaps in her knowledge of her mom. She doesn't want to push her father, who is recovering from his prostate cancer, but clearly there should be more information about her. All she has is the stories her dad tells and the letters that were supposedly written by her mother for Mark to give to their daughter on certain big moments and times of Sienna's life. Tyson, who is living in London, learns about her cancer and returns to Wyoming to help. 

The story is mostly through Sienna's voice, with a few chapters from Mark, her father, and her grandmother's point-of-view. Some of the letters that are supposed to be from Sienna's mother are interspersed between chapters. Whatever It Takes is an okay way to pass some time but is nothing special. The problem is it is poorly plotted/imagined. The narrative starts out with an immature young woman facing a health crisis via denial until she is forced to deal with it. She refuses to do the mature thing and tell people about it. Hiding it seems nonsensical and, quite frankly, a bit ridiculous. Sienna is not a very appealing young woman and the constant introspection included after or before all the dialogue, does not make her any more appealing. Then the whole story morphs into a mystery about who was Sienna's mother. I'm sure the breast cancer was a way to have Sienna ask about her mother's cancer in the plot, but to be realistic, she could/should have asked about it anyway for a family medical history.

I'm recommending the novel because once it commits to being a mystery, it is more interesting. The twisty ending helped.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington.