Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Chances Are...

Chances Are... by Richard Russo
Knopf Doubleday: 7/30/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101947746

Chances Are... by Richard Russo is a very highly recommended novel about a reunion on Martha's Vineyard of three Vietnam era men who have been friends since college. This is an exquisite examination of relationships and aging, along with a decades old mystery. One of the best novels of the year.

Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey have been friends since they were scholarships students at Minerva College in Connecticut and worked as "hashers" in the dining hall of a sorority. It was while they were in college that the three all listened together to the draft lottery broadcast and they found out that Mickey's number came up first, Lincoln's was in the middle, and Teddy's toward the end. The three were also best friends with Jacy Rockafellow, a member of the sorority where they worked. When they all graduated from Minerva in 1971 the four spent one last weekend at the vacation home on Martha's Vineyard Lincoln's mother owned. This was the weekend Jacy disappeared and no one knows what happened.

Now, forty-four years later in 2015, the three friends are sixty-six and back on the Vineyard for a reunion. The mystery of what happened to Jacy will also be on the men's minds. Currently Lincoln is a happily married real estate broker with children and grandchildren. He grew up an only child in Dunbar, Arizona, the son of a domineering father and unassertive mother. Teddy is an editor at a small university press and suffers from spells and depression. He grew up as the only son of high school teachers in the Midwest. Mickey is a hard rock musician. He is the youngest and only son of a large family from West Haven.

The novel is about enduring friendships between three very different men who all have their own secrets, but it is also about Jacy and the mystery of what happened to her. Russo excels at developing realistic, sincere male characters who may be flawed but are conscientious and thoughtful. All these men are well developed characters. They have already experienced a life time of growth and changes, yet this weekend will change them. I love the way Russo captures the passage of time and the messiness of life through his characters. Life is rarely clear-cut, straightforward, or uncomplicated and Russo innately understands this and is able to convey this in his novels.

Russo is a outstanding writer and all his admirable abilities, both technical and literary, are on display in Chances Are....  The narrative is engrossing and held my complete attention from the beginning to the end. He realistically captures the time and place for these characters throughout the novel. Alternating chapters are told from the point-of-view of Lincoln and Teddy. We learn about their past, their friendship, and their lives leading up to the sixty-six-year-old men they are today. Suspense builds as the question of what happened to Jacy becomes increasingly important and there seems to be a suspect. Only one chapter is told through Mickey's point-of-view, and this is the chapter that provides some answers to questions spoken and unspoken.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The Last Widow

The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter
HarperCollins: 8/20/19
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062858085
Will Trent Series #9

The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter is an excellent, very highly recommended thriller/procedural and ninth book in the Will Trent series. This is one of the best books of the year!

A scientist from the  Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Michelle Spivey, is kidnapped from outside a shopping center with no clues as to why. A month later Will Trent, an investigator with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and Dr. Sara Linton, a medical examiner, are nearby when two explosions occur at Emory University in Atlanta where two major hospitals, the FBI headquarters, and the CDC are located. Will and Sara go rushing over to help when they come across a three car accident, but something seems clearly off about this accident. The two are intelligent keen observers and start to notice all clues pointing to something being wrong. When they see Michelle with the men, several who appear to be shot, they are getting ready to take action when all heck breaks loose. The end result is Will is wounded and Sara is kidnapped.

The FBI figures out that the group calls themselves the Invisible Patriot Army (IPA for short, which makes me chuckle and I can't help but think the acronym is purposeful). Alternate chapters follow Will, Sara, and Will's colleague Faith (and boss Amanda) as they try to figure out where the group's home base is and what they are planning. Obviously the stakes are high if you need a doctor/scientist with the CDC and another doctor. The group has already set off two bombs at Emory. What is their final target and why?
The IPA is a domestic terrorist anti-government cult where beliefs include white supremacy, a skewed religion, misogyny, sexual abuse, biological warfare, pedophilia, and paramilitary training. It is a gritty novel and not for the faint of heart. Contrary to some reviews, it is not an "alt-right" or "alt-left" or "alt-religion" group. It's a cult. It's anti-political and uses religion only for control. It's about power and control of everyone who is not a part of the group. The label "patriot" is simply a way to justify their terrorist activities. (This is not the first time a terrorist group from various backgrounds and countries has done this and, alas, it won't be the last.)
The Last Widow is un-put-down-able, intelligent, tension-filled, action-packed, fast-paced, and well-researched, with twists and turns and surprising revelations at every corner. The writing is excellent- both well-executed with a well-paced plot that is intricate and engaging. Slaughter will grab and hold your attention to the bitter end. This is truly a novel that you will find it hard, if not impossible to stop reading once you've started. It will most certainly be a contender for one of the top novels of the year.

Although this is the ninth in the series, you can read it as a stand-alone. Slaughter has provided within the narrative enough background information to help new readers follow along. (Of course you will likely want to read others in the series and every book Karin Slaughter has written after you read The Last Widow.)
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Escape Room

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin
St. Martin's Press: 7/30/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250219657

The Escape Room is a highly recommended debut thriller by Megan Goldin.

Vincent, Jules, Sylvie, and Sam are high rolling investment bankers from the Wall Street firm Stanhope and Sons. The four are called to a meeting by the human resources department that ends up being an escape room team building challenge. The ambitious four become increasingly agitated and hostile as they look for puzzles to solve while locked in an elevator with no lights. It seems that this is no ordinary escape room challenge and might be a game of survival.

Alternating chapters follow the present and the past. Present day chapters are set in the elevator where clues seem to point to two deceased employees, Sara and Lucy. Chapters set in the past are from the point-of-view of Sara Hall. Sara was a recent MBA graduate who Vincent hired to work on his team with the other three leading team members and Lucy, a brilliant mathematician on the spectrum who kept to herself. The four, Vincent, Jules, Sylvie, and Sam, are obviously the ones in charge and they make sure Sara works long hours and does all the tedious tasks the others avoid. Sara's chapters with the backstory explain what happened to her and Lucy, and how the four ended up in the elevator.

This is an entertaining debut thriller that starts out strong and basically holds your attention throughout. The elevator scenes do slow down and become a bit tedious while alternating chapters following Sara become much more compelling and interesting. This lag happens as the past catches up to the present day chapters. Sara and Lucy are both are both protagonists you will support and have empathy for, while the four bankers are clearly antagonists from the start. You will have to suspend disbelief with the plot, but the sheer entertainment value will make that easy.

Once you get the the end of the novel, the narrative is a long explanation of how and why the four ended up in the elevator. The long game of getting them there requires setting skepticism aside and just going with the action. Even while I knew the plot was stretching credibility, I kept reading for the entertainment value.

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson
HarperCollins: 7/30/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062855312

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson is a very highly recommended compulsively readable domestic thriller that will grab all of your attention and hold you hostage until the end. One of the best books of the year!

Amy Whey had a troubled past but is now living a content, ordinary suburban life. She is married to Davis, and loves her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, Maddie, and their infant son, Oliver.  Amy teaches diving lessons, which is how her best friend, Charlotte originally introduced her to Maddie and Davis. Now she and Charlotte are neighbors and she helps Char run their book club. When a new neighbor from a rental house who calls herself Roux shows up at the club, Roux immediately takes charge of the book club and sets it careening off into a dangerous direction.

Roux keeps the women drinking, talking, and then starts a dangerous game of "Never have I ever." Many of the members, including Char leave early but some women stay and overshare to Roux. Amy ends up ordering Roux to leave her house, because she recognizes the dangerous game this woman is playing. Roux is dangerous and now she knows a secret from Amy's past that she is threatening to share if Amy doesn't give her a large sum of money. Everything isn't quite as cut and dried as Roux thinks. She may be threatening Amy, but Amy is not going down without a fight and that means playing a dangerous game of her own.

Warning: Once you start reading Never Have I Ever you will lose sleep and even, briefly, consider taking a sick day from work. It is that good. This is a twisty dark tale of evil, deception, blackmail, temptation, family, love, shrewdness, friendship, and strategy. If Amy wants to win this game, it means she needs to undertake her own risky game against a professional extortionist. Roux thinks she is an easy mark, but she has underestimated Amy.

I'm a huge fan of Jackson's writing. She's talented, clever, funny, smart, and writes memorable character-driven fiction. Almost every book she writes becomes my favorite of her novels, and now Never Have I Ever is my favorite. The writing and the plot are absolutely perfectly paced and executed. I was totally engrossed in this compelling thriller and, as each new twist surprised me, couldn't pull myself away from reading. And I guessed not a twist or move in this story.

Amy is a wonderful character. She has made mistakes in her life and has been through some hard circumstances. She is clever and shrewd at times, but she is also goodhearted and supportive. She has endured her own hard times and has overcome them while trying to do the right thing and keeping some things to herself. She is a character that you will support and wish the best for in spite of her flaws. Roux will make your blood pressure rise right from the start when she comes to the book club and takes over with her little games.

Never Have I Ever has it all: exciting plot, great writing, unexpected twists, and memorable characters. It is the perfect summer read - or fall, or winter, or spring...

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Penguin Random House: 7/23/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399563058 

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal is a very highly recommended family drama set in Minnesota and featuring strong female characters.

Edith and her sister, Helen, grew up in Minnesotans in the 1950s. Edith and Stanley Magnusson marry and struggle together to make ends meet while raising their family. Helen goes to college and marries the heir of the Blotz brewing company. Helen convinces her father to leave his whole inheritance to her so she and her husband can build their business up with the production of a successful light beer. Edith has not talked to Helen since she stole her part of their inheritance.

While her husband earns a living driving a truck, Edith has been working for years in the kitchen of a nursing home where she makes the residents homemade pies. When she is in her 60's her pies become famous and people begin traveling to have a slice of her pie. When Stanley retires and she is offered a job in Nicollet Falls, Minnesota, the two move and Edith starts making pies for a cafe. Helen struggles at the beginning and although she becomes very successful, she never offers to pay Edith back her half of their parent's inheritance. Stanley passes away, and circumstance lead to Edith's granddaughter Diana living with her while Edith, in her 70's struggles to support them by working two jobs, at a department store and a burger place. Circumstances come full circle when Diana starts working for a craft brewery while Blotz's business is falling. Perhaps some closure can happen for Edith and Helen.
The quality of the writing is excellent, capturing the actions and thoughts of the characters perfectly in this heartwarming, delightful, and engrossing story. I love that Stradal has introduced us to some excellent original female characters who are strong, intelligent, complicated, hard-working Midwestern women, including older women! So many writers seem to revel in poking fun at anyone from the Midwest. He doesn't make the older women doddering caricatures that younger readers can adore and laugh at how quaint they are. These women are the women I know. They may have setbacks, loss, and struggles, but they pull themselves together and get the job done, finding a way to support themselves without a lot of complaining or fuss. And yet it is also a story of following your passions.
The narrative is told through events from the past and the present through Edith, Helen, and Diana. Each chapter starts with an amount of money that will be important to the characters in that chapter, helping highlight the disparity in the character's lives. The story shines when it follows Edith and Diana, especially as they face and overcome challenges. The plot is intriguing enough to hold your attention throughout and you will loath having to set the novel aside for things like sleep or work. There is also a whole lot about brewing beer, craft beer, and different styles of beer. While the ending might be a tad bit too perfectly convenient, it is a fitting conclusion to a wonderful summer read.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Gravity Is the Thing

Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
HarperCollins: 7/23/19
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062883735

Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty is a highly recommended novel about a woman's search for universal truths and happiness.

Abigail (Abi) Sorenson’s brother Robert went missing twenty years ago. It was the day before her sixteenth birthday, a day the two had a special on-going birthday ritual. The two were very close but she has heard nothing from him since that day and he never shared his plans with her. She has been looking for him ever since and his absence from her life has had an lasting impact. That same year, she began receiving chapters in the mail of a self-help manual called The Guidebook and has received the chapters ever since. The Guidebook has been a constant through her life as she went through various changes and trials.

Now, twenty years later, Abi has been invited along with twenty-five other recipients of The Guidebook to an all-expenses paid weekend to Taylor Island, off the southeast coast of Australia by Wilbur, the son of the authors. She hopes to learn the truth behind The Guidebook. Sure, she's intrigued, but it is also a vacation. Her mother is watching her four-year-old son, Oscar and her Happiness Café can run itself in her absence. What The Guidebook was purposing to teach the recipients is surprising and surrealistic, but perhaps Abi does have something to discover through the lessons.

This is a rather quirky, amusing, diverting novel that tells Abi's story, past and present, through first and second person points-of-view in chapters that vary widely in length. Chapters from The Guidebook are interspersed throughout. Abi is a well-developed character and her journey through life is filled with wit, humor, stress, heart-break, and problems. She does learn some unexpected lessons as she further explores what the authors of The Guidebook intended and looks into the sometimes absurd advice from other self-help books in her search for happiness.

Moriarty is a YA author and this is a successful first foray into adult fiction. She does an excellent job telling Abi's story. The dramatic difference in the length of chapters along with switching between past and present and the inclusion of chapters from The Guidebook to tell Abi's story is used quite effectively by Moriarty. Above all, the characters are searching for a connection, something to complete them and provide the happiness and fulfillment that seems to be missing in their lives. Readers won't learn why Abi and the other recipients of The Guidebook were chosen until almost the end, but it makes sense. The answer of what happened to Robert is also provided for closure. Basically, this is a novel about a woman's life and her quest for answers, happiness, and fulfillment.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
HarperCollins: 7/23/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062390011 

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman is a very highly recommended standalone mystery

Set in Baltimore, Lady in the Lake follows Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz for a little over a year from 1965 to 1966. Maddie is a 37-year-old Jewish housewife who has separated from her husband of almost twenty year after a dinner party forces her to remember that as a young woman she aspired to live a meaningful life. When an 11-year-old girl is missing, presumed dead, Maddie joins the search for her and ends up finding the body and helping the police. Maddie parlays this and some correspondence she had with the suspected killer into a job at the Star, one of the cities local newspapers.

Cleo Sherwood was a young black woman whose body is discovered in the Druid Hill Park fountain. While discovering what happened to her murder seems less pressing to the police, Maddie is determined to discover what happened to Cleo. Cleo's ghost, whose voice is an ongoing part of the narrative, wants Maddie to leave it alone. Maddie is sure this is the story that can start her career as a reporter, but Maddie's determination will cause problems for many other people.

Everyone expects exceptional writing from Lippman and Lady in the Lake makes good on that expectation and gives even more. The narrative is mainly told through Maddie's voice, but there is also consistent commentary from Cleo (in italics) as well as first person vignettes from a whole host of other characters that Maddie encounters along the way. For me, these accounts provide a richness and depth to the plot that would have otherwise been an excellent story presented in a more typical style. I applaud Lippman for this choice and appreciated the "Our Town" presentation style. I felt it helped set Lady in the Lake apart and created a more complete picture of the time, place, and people in the novel.

Maddie is a complicated character living in a time when her choices were limited by societal expectations and the men around her. This atmosphere is captured perfectly in Lippman's newspaper noir novel. Maddie is a very well developed character. She may not always know what reactions her actions will result in, but she is determined to uncover the truth behind the two mysteries in the novel. It is to her credit that she seemingly cares more than the police about getting answers. The answers are both there, but getting them comes via a surprising, unexpected twist.

Lady in the Lake is a rich nuanced novel with well-drawn characters, depth, and style. While it is not the adrenaline packed thriller than some fans might have been expecting, I was engrossed in this complex, interesting story from start to finish and give it my highest recommendation.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Other Mrs. Miller

The Other Mrs. Miller by Allison Dickson
Penguin Random House; 7/16/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525539247 

The Other Mrs. Miller by Allison Dickson is a recommended domestic thriller.

Phoebe Miller, 32, inherited a fortune from her father, David Noble. Her father also left her with the fallout from his years of sexual misconduct. Already an unhappy woman, Phoebe has now isolated herself in her suburban Lake Forest, Illinois, home where she drinks too much and tries to avoid going out in public. She has also started a log recording the time the car with a delivery company's sign on it parks in the cul-de-sac. She feels like the woman inside is watching her and may be a reporter. To make matters worse, her therapist husband Wyatt wants to have children; she's no longer interested and becoming increasingly fed up with Wyatt.
Then a family moves in across the street and it changes Phoebe's world. Vicki Napier is an outgoing, excitable woman who is quickly becoming Phoebe's best friend. The problem is that her eighteen-year-old son, Jake, is becoming Phoebe's lover while Vicki's husband seems to be an alcoholic with a temper.  The woman in the car is still watching the drama unfold, but Phoebe is too busy to keep track of her any more.

The novel is divided up into two parts, with part two decidedly different from part one, but most of the same players involved, and it starts with a major twist. Someone has been murdered, but the real question is who is responsible. Everyone is a suspect and trust is fleeting. Part two requires you to suspend disbelief and keep with the story for the resolution, even though the twist is unbelievable. The writing helps pull it all together.

While none of the characters are particularly likeable or trustworthy, and the plot becomes increasingly improbable, Dickson does manage to keep your attention on the narrative in spite of it all. It was relatively easy to ignore many of the coincidental occurrences that were required to keep the plot moving forward. You also have to accept Phoebe's affair with an 18 year-old. This is one of those novels that is engaging and will hold your attention, but you do have to accept the premise put into place and go with the action as it unfolds.

This would be a good choice for and airplane book or vacation read. It's an entertaining way to pass the time.

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

Monday, July 15, 2019


Buried by Ellison Cooper
St. Martin's: 7/16/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250173867

Buried by Ellison Cooper is a highly recommended investigative thriller and a sequel to 2018’s Caged.

Max Cho, an off-duty FBI agent and his K9 Kona find a sinkhole filled with human bones in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. FBI Senior Special Agent Sayer Altair is called back into the field to investigate. Sayer has been off-duty recovering from a gunshot wound when she exposed a killer within the FBI, resulting in personal attacks and a huge investigation. As a neuroscientist Sayer has been studying psychopaths. She never expected to find one in the FBI and now she is on the trail of another one.

The bones in the sinkhole vary widely in their age, but there are two bodies in there are recent, so Sayer knows she has an active dump sight of a serial killer. The recent victims were women who were kidnapped, and there are clues that point to more victims to follow. The killer, though, must be watching them because their team has been attacked. While trying to solve the current case, the congressional investigation of the FBI is ongoing and the media is swarming.

This is obviously a sequel and I do wish I had read Caged first before jumping into Buried. While I stilled enjoyed this second book, I felt I was missing some key elements. Even so, the story is compelling and I was engrossed in reading it as fast as possible. There is plenty of action and investigative threads to follow. The descriptive writing kept me glued to the pages as the crime is investigated and solved. The plot is complex and Cooper excels at keeping the anticipation high.

Sayer is a great character and I liked her quite a bit (even though I feel like I would have reacted even more if I had read the first book). All the characters are well developed and interesting. This seems like a great series to continue following. Yes, some of the plot elements are predictable, but the presentation is still engaging and made for some great escapism while following an intense plot.

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

This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Gallery/Saga Press; 7/16/19
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9781534431003

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a highly recommended epistolary science fiction story.

Red and Blue are rival time traveling special agents from two vastly different cultures/races that are at war. Red is part of the Agency, working for the Commandant, and represents a technological-based manufactured race of AI, while Blue is part of the Garden and represents a biological/organic race of intertwined mass consciousness. They both travel up, down, and along different of time strands to make sure their culture succeeds and flourishes in the future, winning the war.
When Blue leaves a letter for Red on a bloody battlefield of a dying world, what began as a taunt evolves into a friendship and later a romance through letters. The letter read: Burn before reading. Red reads the letter and writes one of her own, leaving it where Blue will find it on one of her assignments. The two proceed to exchange letters in hidden, inventive, creative, unique and unexpected ways across timelines in the future and past. Any discovery of their exchange would mean death for both women.
The narrative alternates between following Red and Blue on their missions and with the letters sent to each other in-between descriptions of their current objective. The two travel across history and the future, both with multiple realities of each time period. This abbreviated novel is composed of expertly crafted exchanges using poetic language. Their romance is one of ideas, thoughts, and emotions, not physical, because they are from such different species.
The strength and the challenge of this novel is in the language because the prose is so poetic, full of metaphors and similes. The world building is there, but vague enough that it might be irksome to many science fiction fans. The focus is not the worlds they are from or how the war between the different future races evolved. Instead the prose covers basically the missions they are on, with the heart of the novel focusing on the burgeoning relationship between these two very different special agents.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery/Saga Press.

Native Tongue

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
The Feminist Press at CUNY: rerelease 7/16/19
eBook review copy; 327 pages
ISBN-13: 9781936932634 

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin is a highly recommended classic dystopian novel which was originally published in 1984 and is currently being re-released. This is the first book in a three book series.

In 2205 the Nineteenth Amendment has long been repealed. Men hold absolute power. Women are treated as children who must always be supervised by men and any of their actions require male approval. The only value women hold is to provide children. The current world-wide economy depends upon trade with other cultures, including alien. The Chornyak family is a powerful family of translators who raise their children, daughters included, to be linguists. All their members speak multiple languages and are used as translators in sensitive negotiations.
Nazareth Adiness is a brilliant linguist and the most talented of the Chornyak family. As with all translators she has been working since she was young and is a valuable asset to the family, yet she still has to endure an arranged marriage as a teen and the expectation that she will have a large number of children (while still working). Once women are past child bearing years or deemed infertile, they are moved to Barren House, to keep the older women from causing any drama in the main house.

Unknown to any man is that the useless older women of Barren house have been working together to make up a secret language of their own, a language that will only be taught to women and one they can use to communicate with each other without the men's interference. The women are preparing for a coming revolution where they will remove themselves from the control of men.
It's rather surprising to me that I never came across Native Tongue before this reissued edition. The world building depicts a misogynistic society in a realistic manner. We currently have cultures/societies where women have no rights and men are in control. It is an interesting concept, but certainly Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is over all a better novel with more depth and clarity of characters. The society is too divided here, too bad versus good, with men versus women, and all men bad. It is interesting, certainly the discussion of languages was interesting, but it also was a bit too simplistic.
First, I was engrossed in the narrative and found the whole concept fascinating, but I can't say it was especially well written as a novel. The character development is superficial. Perhaps the main issue I had was the implausibility that the Nineteenth Amendment would ever be repealed and all women would just submit. Even today there are women who fight back against certain societies that have patriarchal cultural expectations to control women. Not all women will submit; there will always be some women who will fight for their freedom and rights. I'm highly recommending it for some of the science fiction concepts presented. 3.5 rounded up.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of The Feminist Press at CUNY.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Lightest Object in the Universe

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 7/9/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616207939 

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele is a recommended post-apocalyptic novel.

A flu pandemic sweeps the world, twice. Protests are already tearing the country apart when society completely breaks down after a cyber attack takes out the electrical grid, along with the global economy and everything else. What is left is a world of individuals on their own who must know how to survive by their own wits and means. Carson is living on the East Coast when the collapse happens, while the woman he has been having a long-distance relationship with, Beatrix, lives on the West Coast. While Beatrix finds herself trying to work with her neighbors to create a cooperative community, set up a radio station, and watch out for the gangs of unruly teenagers on bikes who call themselves T-Rizers, Carson sets out to cross the country on foot to find Beatrix.

The narrative alternates between Carson and Beatrix's point-of-view, with a few sections told through teenage Rosie's eyes. Along Carson's journey he encounters a wide variety of people, most of which are adapting to the new world, mostly helpful. Many are heading toward the compound of a man called Jonathan Blue and the Center he leads in Wyoming. He has taken over the radio frequencies and offers food and community for all who come and join his self-styled religious cult. People across the country are headed toward his group, while others stay in place and try to survive by their own strength and wits.
I would probably scoff at this kinder, gentler post-apocalyptic novel, except for the absolutely exceptional writing - and the quality of the writing is exquisite. She also delves deep into her characters, who are good people. You will want the best to happen to them, even if you, like me, doubt the vision created here. There is also a little too much implied finger-pointing about the "various evil whatever entities that brought us to this horrid path, but look at how we can overcome" going on.
Eisele has envisioned a collapse of society that is actually somewhat optimistic. One would imagine that the actual violence is taking place somewhere off the page, because this novel is more about hope, community efforts, and a new beginning, which is kind of nice, but not highly likely in reality. If people can't get along when they are living (generally, in comparison) comfortable lives, how would the end of society suddenly make them try? Beatrix scoffs at armed guards protecting her neighborhood. Really? Digging composting toilets with your neighbors doesn't necessarily bring people together and make them want to share all they have with others. I also found the idea that thousands of people would head off to a cult located in Wyoming a fantastical fabrication.

In the final analysis, suspend your disbelief and read this novel for the determination of Carson to get to Beatrix.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

The Liar's House

The Liar's House by Carla Kovach
Bookouture: 7/2/19
eBook review copy; 328 pages
ISBN-13: 9781786818812
Detective Gina Harte #4 

The Liar's House by Carla Kovach is a highly recommended police procedural and the fourth book in the British Detective Gina Harte series.

In a small Midlands town there is a killer on the loose. Samantha is making her way home from a party at a private club, when she is murdered. A body is never found, so her disappearance is labeled as a missing person. Jumping ahead seven years, another woman, Jade Ashmore, is murdered on her way home from a party. As the detectives investigate the new crime, an older woman who was a friend of Samantha's receives a birthday card for Sam with a fingernail inside. When police analyze the nail, they discover that it belongs to Jade, not Samantha, and they realize that the cases are linked.

At the same time Detective Gina Harte is at loose ends. She still misses having a close relationship to Briggs, her boss, so she is trying Tinder dating. She is basically just using it to hook up with men rather than actually seeking a relationship. Her latest date, Rex, seems way too intent on continuing the relationship.

Based on my experience, you can read this as a standalone and get the background information without reading the previous books in the series, although those who have read the whole series are suggesting starting with the first book. From the back ground information it appears that Gina has a rather detrimental acquaintance with unstable, perverse men and unhealthy relationships. Abuse and violence against women is a theme in this novel, as is women making bad choices. This all creates a bit of a quandary for me.  I didn't care for Gina as a character based on her personal choices, which made the narrative feel a little more tedious. Once a victim does not mean always a victim.

The plot is a well-written procedural and Kovach provides plenty of suspects to consider as the investigation deepens. The pace is even. I didn't experience any twists or surprises here, but is it a solid procedural. I guessed the identity of the killer right away. The connection to a partner-swapping group just made a gray novel feel even darker. It's not that it is a bad novel, it's just a rather bleak, depressing one. 3.5 rounded up.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture via Netgalley.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger
Penguin Random House: 7/2/19
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525535805

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger is a highly recommended procedural and psychological thriller.

FBI Agent Nell Flynn returns home to Long Island to bury her father, Homicide Detective Martin Flynn, and settle his estate. After a second body is discovered, Nell, who is still recovery from a gunshot wound, ends up helping her father's new partner, Lee Davis, with the investigation into the murder of two young women. As she looks into the investigation it appears that her father may have been involved in corruption and a prostitution ring and his long-time friends on the force may also be involved.
As the investigation continues, Nell uncovers secrets and lies, exposure of which could threaten her life. The more she unearths, the more the tension and suspense build. As the narrative builds momentum, the plot intensifies to a break-neck velocity, with some surprising twists along the way. Nell is a great character, smart and tenacious, as she takes on the investigation and her own personal quest for the truth, despite the consequences of what she exposes. Nell is questioning both her past and the present as she looks for the answers to her questions.

The quality of the writing is outstanding, both in the plot and character development. The plot is intricate, gritty, fast-paced and action-packed. The pacing of the narrative is pitch-perfect, which helps keep the tension and suspense steadily rising with each chapter. (It is also appealing to have a reliable female narrator.) There are a number of well-placed twists and discoveries as the investigation proceeds. Book clubs may enjoy the discussion based on social classes that will ensue from the privileged home owners versus the undocumented women and sex trafficking. This is a winning summer read with a surprising ending.

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

Never Look Back

Never Look Back by Alison Gaylin
HarperCollins; 7/2/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062844545 

Never Look Back by Alison Gaylin is a highly recommended mystery/thriller that begs the question, "How well do you know your parents?"

In 1976 teenage murderers April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy terrorized Southern California. Now forty years later true-crime podcaster Quentin Garrison is looking into the pair for a show he has named "Closure" because that is what he is hoping to find. The pair killed his mother's little sister and he blames them for his mother's drug abuse and tearing his family apart. Now he has a tip that April didn't die in 1976, but is still alive under the name Renee Bloom. He contacts her daughter, New York City film columnist Robin Diamond, and asks her how well does she know her mother's background and if her mother could be April Cooper.

The narrative is told through events in the past and present by alternating between current day events and fifteen-year-old April Cooper's diary of letters to her future daughter. The twists and new information abound between the present day investigation and action in juxtaposition to the story of what really happened in 1976. The suspense builds in both time periods as the question of trust and honesty comes into play. As events unfold, Gaylin keeps the action moving quickly forward.

The quality of writing is excellent. The duel points-of-view work well in this novel and Gaylin does an excellent job keeping the voices of the different characters distinct and unique. The plot moves quickly and directly without any sidetracks or superfluous facts thrown in for distraction. She keeps her characters distinct and unique while allowing them to provide the clues and information needed to tell the story and solve the mystery. Some parts will be easy for readers to predict the outcome, but all in all this was a very good mystery.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

The Girl in the Woods

The Girl in the Woods by Patricia MacDonald
Severn House Publishers: 2/1/19 (reprint)
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781847518941

The Girl in the Woods by Patricia MacDonald is a so-so/recommended mystery surrounding a murder that occurred fifteen years previously.

Blair Butler has returned to the small town where she and her sister, Celeste, grew up with their Uncle Ellis after their mother died. Blair left as soon as she was able and never looked back, especially after her best friend, Molly, was murdered there fifteen years ago when the girls were thirteen. Now Celeste is dying and Blair returns to her bedside, only to have her sister tell her a shocking secret that means the man convicted of killing Molly is not guilty and the real killer is still out there. Molly begins to investigate and let people know about her sister's secret, but this only seems to stir up more secrets and resentment.

This is all in all, an okay mystery/thriller, with nothing to really set it apart or make it stand out. Blair is an annoying character/caricature, but she is set in a novel full of annoying characters/caricatures who all are representative of a certain type of person. Descriptions of characters are simply a repeated rehashing of their negative personality traits and actions. The narrative itself is very derivative and takes huge plot elements from several other novels (two novels in particular) so there is no real original story telling here. You will likely know where the story is going. It is, however, a fast and quick read. (I've rounded up to three stars.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Severn House Publishers.