Thursday, August 29, 2019

Scan Artist

Scan Artist by Marcia Biederman
Chicago Review Press, Inc., 9/3/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781641601627

Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked by Marcia Biederman is a highly recommended examination of the life of Evelyn Wood and her Reading Dynamics program.

As a fan of Saturday Night Live, I saw the hilarious third season mock commercial on 11/12/77 about the "Evelyn Woodski Slow Reading Course." For anyone who lived through the 60s and 70's', the name Evelyn Wood is closely associated with speed reading through her Reading Dynamics Institutes/classes which were widely advertised and held in many different cities across the country. As many people suspected, her program, advertising that program graduates could read Dr. Zhivago in one hour, were really a scam. She was, as many reading specialists, like George Spache, kept saying, teaching skimming, not reading, and the comprehension of what participants read was lacking. Wood was actually not a trained or veteran teacher, as she claimed.
Biederman presents this biography of Wood following her Mormon background and the missionary work she and her husband undertook with the Third Reich. Once she started her speed reading program, Wood was quick to market her program through those well-known individuals who took it, especially those in government. Many of her claims and connections to fame were exaggerated or misstated. Those who repeatedly tried to unmask Wood and the program were threatened with lawsuits, and labeled as narrow-minded. During the heyday of Reading Dynamics those who were dissatisfied with results from the expensive program were often blamed for their own lack of success and had no real recourse other than the Better Business Bureaus. She also actively suppressed or opposed all the scientific evidence about the lack of comprehension with her program.
Presented in a chronological timeline, Scan Artist covers the life of Evelyn Wood and her rise to fame as a reading teacher. While I thought this was a very interesting biography, Wood doesn't necessarily come across as a dynamic or compelling person. In some ways she was small-minded and downright cold/cruel at times, but she did have a lot of unmerited confidence in herself and speed reading. It was unfathomable that she got away with this scam for so long and managed to have people doubt themselves rather than the effectiveness of the system. Biederman does an excellent job capturing the historical setting and concerns of the decades covered.

I wanted to read this biography because I have always been a prolific reader and, although I haven't a clue what my reading speed is, I get along at a good pace with good comprehension. I know, however, I could never approach the "Dr. Zhivago-in-one-hour" level. I actually read everything I review, but I noticed over the years a few reviewers who seem to be reading dozens of books a day. When questioned, one claimed to be a speed reader. Based on the reviews, which seemed to just summarize the synopsis, I doubted the credibility of this claim. This biography confirmed my doubts.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

After the Flood

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
HarperCollins: 9/3/19
advanced reading copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062889362

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag is a highly recommended post-apocalyptic climate science fiction novel.

It's a little over a century in the future and rising flood waters and melting polar ice caps have resulted in a world underwater with just the highest mountain ranges forming an archipelago of islands. Living on their small boat, the Bird, are Myra and Pearl, her seven-year-old daughter who was born on the boat. The Bird was built by Myra's grandfather, who started the journey with them but has since passed away. When flood waters overtook their home in Nebraska, they started their journey.
Along with survival, a major goal was to search for Row, Myra's older daughter, who was stolen away and taken off on another boat by her father.  Myra fishes, and visits trading post on islands to barter her catch for supplies and look for information on Row. A violent confrontation results in Myra getting information that Row was seen, alive, on an encampment in Greenland. Myra is determined to get a larger boat that can survive the journey to this camp and rescue Row. When they have Daniel, a navigator, join them, and then they all join the crew of a larger ship, Sedna, it seems that Myra may be able to get to the island to rescue Row. Her determination to do, however, may end up endangering everyone.

After the Flood is reminiscent of the long running genre of many other dystopian flooded earth novels (Stephen Baxter's Flood, 2008;  Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, 2003-2013; J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, 1962 - for example) and the movie Waterworld, 1995. Obviously, if you like this genre of science fiction, you will enjoy Montag's novel. The writing is very good in this debut novel and excels more in the literary writing, rather than the world building, which is adequate, but not extraordinary. Additionally, there are some little niggling details in the plot that require you to set doubts aside in order to enjoy the action in this thriller.
The novel focuses on Myra, both her love for her daughters and her determination to save Row. Myra is a well-developed character, but the other characters are all bit players in many ways. There are several strong female characters, however, which is refreshing. Montag exposes both the positive and negative in Myra's character, exposing some real flaws and questionable morals in her behavior. She is determined to save Row, no matter the cost to others (in some ways including Pearl), as she faces an endless series of obstacles. She also has some surprisingly good fighting moves.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Everything Inside

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
Knopf Doubleday: 8/27/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525521273

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat is a very highly recommended collection of eight short stories. All of the characters are either Haitian or have ties to Haiti and are set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed Caribbean country.

Danicat is a natural, lyrical story teller and the writing in Everything Inside is beautiful. The complicated lives of people and their emotional upheavals, tragic events, and unexpected occurrences are keenly observed. Her characters handle their circumstances and loss with the fortitude and stoicism of careful observers. Many of these characters are people who live in one place but are drawn elsewhere. This is a very special, thoughtful collection.

Contents include:
Dosas: Elsie is a home healthcare nursing assistant. She is divorced from Blase who left her for her best friend Olivia. Blase calls her one day, claiming Olivia was kidnapped when back visiting Haiti, and now the kidnappers are demanding a ransom.
In the Old Days: A woman flies from New York to Miami to meet her dying father. She was born after he left and raised by her mother, so this trip will be the first time she meets him.
The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special: A couple who runs a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, take the young woman who is their son's nanny to the doctor. When she is diagnosed with SIDA, AIDS, they find and pay for her treatment, but their help has unexpected results.
The Gift: Anika and Thomas are former lovers who meet in Miami. The two were having an affair before an earthquake killed his wife and child and left him with an amputated leg. Anika has a gift she wants to give him.
Hot Air Balloons: Lucy and Neah are roommates at college in Miami and grew up with very different backgrounds. When Neah drops out to do international aid work for a Haitian women's organization that she learned about through Lucy, Neah's father blames Lucy for this and asks that she talk to his daughter.
Sunrise, Sunset: Carol is an aging woman who is suffering from dementia, which her husband helps her hide, but her condition is becoming worse and frightening her daughter, Jeanne. This all results in a frightening event which occurs at the christening for Jeanne's son. 
Seven Stories: Two childhood friends meet again as adults in an unnamed Caribbean country where one of them is now the wife of the prime minister.
Without Inspection: An undocumented construction worker is falling to his death and is flashing back through his memories and the defining moments of his life.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Warehouse

The Warehouse by Rob Hart
Penguin Random House: 8/20/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781984823793

The Warehouse by Rob Hart is a very highly recommended dystopian and espionage thriller set in a changed future where a mega-corporation is running the economy.

Cloud is a giant worldwide fulfillment company that controls almost all commerce, labor, and technological and economic development in America. Employees live in giant MotherCloud facilities where employees live, work, play, and consume all in one facility. Follow their rules and you have a job and, well, survival. Climate change has devastated the country, and after the Black Friday Massacres, well, people don't want to leave their homes to shop, especially when they can have their every need provided for by Cloud.

The narrative follows the point-of-view of three people. Gibson Wells is the founder of Cloud. The multibillionaire is dying from pancreatic cancer and is sharing his thoughts and the history of the company through blog posts. He is traveling on a bus across the country to visit each MotherCloud before he dies. Paxton, whose business was destroyed by Cloud, is lucky enough to get hired by Cloud and is assigned a job with security. Paxton begins helping look for the source of a new drug called Oblivion. Zinnia has also been hired, as a product-picker, but she is actually a corporate spy working undercover to find the secrets of the MotherCloud facilities.

Obviously, Cloud will be compared to a present day world-wide fulfillment company combined with the country-wide Mart stores. They are both big businesses that have been said to use/abuse their workers and Wells character seems to mirror the Mart founder. But now add to that view and take into account all the other e-commerce going on today, where people can order a wide variety of items through stores or shopping services and have it all delivered to their homes. We are already quickly becoming a nation of people who, maybe, have to leave our homes only for our jobs, unless you can work from home. Large businesses are already making health services and other amenities available at work. As for being tracked and watched? Yeah, that is happening too with facial recognition software, cameras, cell phone tracking, etc. Don't even get me started on social media and censoring information to control public opinion. The world building here is taking what is currently happening to the next level, which is memorable, cautionary, and terrifying.

The writing is excellent. Hart establishes the setting, introduces his characters, and sets up the plot, premise, and background. Then he does an excellent job juxtaposing the reality of MotherClouds with Gibson Wells' point-of-view. Everything immediately grabs your attention and imagination because it is so completely and utterly plausible. The characters are well-developed and presented as individuals. Paxton is the character to trust as he has no hidden agenda. Zinnia has a secret agenda and while we can follow her actions, she only shares a limited amount. Wells is concerned with his image, his legacy, so his voice is self-serving and delusional. The film rights have been bought by Imagine Entertainment for Ron Howard.

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Oysterville Sewing Circle

The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs
HarperCollins: 8/13/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062425584

The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs is a highly recommended heartwarming domestic drama.
Caroline Shelby returns to Oysterville, Washington, a small town on the Pacific coast, after living in New York for ten years. After a career as a fashion designer/seamstress who was working her way up to some major recognition, her success collapses due to an unscrupulous employer and subsequent blackballing by the fashion industry. Caroline is struggling along, but when a tragedy occurs and she is suddenly the guardian of her best friends two children, five-year-old Addie and six-year-old Flick, she knows she needs to return home in order to take care of the children. She also needs help after being suddenly thrust into the role of mother to two grieving children.

Caroline never thought she would return to the small town of Oysterville, but once there, she knows she made the right decision as she has the support available to help her raise her children. With her arrival is the complication that her childhood best friend, Will, is now living there with his wife, Sierra, another friend. Caroline never really got over her feelings for Will, but is able to set that aside. Caroline also reconnects with Mrs. Lindy Bloom. Lindy is the woman who inspired Caroline and taught her to sew at her sewing shop. What Caroline learns now, as an adult, is that Lindy was abused. This knowledge along with the stories of other women inspires Caroline to start the Oysterville Sewing Circle, a domestic violence support group and business where women can join together  to encourage, support, and assist each other through the abuse and secrets they keep hidden.

The writing is very good in The Oysterville Sewing Circle, a women's fiction domestic drama. The narrative alternates between the present and past. The past events cover both Caroline's time in NYC and her childhood in Oysterville. The NYC sections explain what happened to her and how she became the guardian to Flick and Addie. Her childhood backstory covers her friendship with Will and Sierra, and her fleeing to NYC. The chapters set in the present show how Caroline is adapting to motherhood and flourishing under her current circumstances. Wiggs has shown the way to integrate current social topics and concerns (illegal immigrants, domestic violence, MeToo movement, drug usage, unethical employers) seamlessly into a novel without throwing every controversial topic into one novel. Wiggs then subsequently handle the topics in a serious, sympathetic, and feasible manner.
The characters are complex and react in a believable manner; they are full of clear abilities, faults, longings, secrets, and hidden strength. Caroline's ability to start up a business with talented people available to help her is a little farfetched, as is the love story.  Some serious threads of the plot are summarized rather easily, but you sort of know right at the start what is going to happen. And you know what, it's all okay. It may be predictable, but there are some wonderful highlights and serious topics, all handled in an understandable and thoughtful style. This is a perfect choice to read for escapism and entertainment.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Stolen Things

Stolen Things by R. H. Herron
Penguin Random House: 8/20/19
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524744908

Stolen Things by R. H. Herron is a so-so debut conspiracy thriller.

Ex-cop Laurie Ahmadi is currently a 911 dispatcher in San Bernal, California, who is working when her sixteen-year-old daughter Jojo calls her. Jojo doesn't know where she is at, but she is obviously drugged, disoriented and in pain. Laurie tracks her through her phone and dispatches help immediately. Then both Laurie and her husband, Omid, the police chief, rush to the scene. Jojo is at the home of pro football player Kevin Leeds. Leeds is an activist with the Citizens Against Police Brutality movement. He is arrested, but has no idea why Jojo would be in his home or why there is a body in his closet.
Jojo has been sexually assaulted and drugged.  She also has no idea where her best friend, Harper, is. The two were together the night before. Now Jojo is recovering from something she doesn't remember, Harper is missing, and Laurie must use all her wits to try and figure out what happened after Omid has a heart attack at the hospital. When Harper's phone is found in Jojo's possession, they look into her messages and also look at her social media accounts to try and figure out who she has been associating with and where she could possibly be. It soon becomes clear that they can trust no one, including the police department that has long been like a family to them. With Omid recovering, Laurie must figure out what is happening on her own.

Laurie and Jojo are well-developed characters and Herron does a good job capturing the mother-daughter relationship. Jojo needs her mother and knows she will come, but she also get exasperated with her like any other teenager. She has also kept her renewed friendship with Harper, as well as other things, a secret. Both of her parents knew Harper wasn't a good influence on Jojo, but they would never wish her harm.
Herron uses present day headlines to frame the action in her novel and goes bold and all-encompassing in the narrative bringing into the plot police brutality, activism, racism, rape, murder, mental health, and LGBTQ rights. In the end no one is is what they seem to be. Everyone is hiding secrets. While Stolen Things is definitely a thriller, it does come with an overriding and overbearing social message with an agenda that veers into a lecturing tone. Pulling plot points from breaking headlines is great, but in this case it ended up distracting from an otherwise page-turning thriller. Sometimes you are better served picking and choosing what will best serve your plot.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

The Retreat

The Retreat by Sherri Smith
Tom Doherty Associates: 8/13/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765386731

The Retreat by Sherri Smith is a recommended thriller. Four women head to The Sanctuary, a wellness retreat. Will they make it out alive?

We know from the start that someone has killed multiple people, we just don't know who. The four women who head to the retreat are all connected through former child star Katie Manning. Ellie Rose, Katie's brother's fiancée, invited Katie. Katie, in turn, invited her two friends from her brief college attendance, Carmen and Ariel. All four of these women have some big secrets they want to hide, but the whole purpose of the retreat is to find themselves and inner bliss. The weekend culminates with the ceremony where all the retreat attendees drink the hallucinatory ayahuasca tea. 

Smith does develop her characters to give them depth; however they all seem to be caricatures of a type of person. The whole novel is populated by unlikable and unreliable stereotypical characters. It is also relatively easy to figure out early on who is the killer, so the thrill is in reaching the conclusion and find out what happens to tie the opening scene to the story. The narrative is told through the four women who travel together to the Sanctuary, so the reader is privy to their secrets, schemes, and insecurities. All of these women are vastly different characters. 

The writing is good, in spite of the fact that the plot is predictable and the characters stereotypes. There are also scenes that really serve no purpose except to be disturbing or depraved. This is an airplane book, read it to pass the time, but you won't cry if you misplace it or never finish it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Tom Doherty Associates.

The Swallows

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz
Penguin Random House: 8/13/19
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9781984818232 

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz is a recommended social drama set in 2009 at a New England prep school. 

Alexandra Witt joins the faculty as an English teacher at Stonebridge Academy. When Alex is assigned creative writing classes, she bulks, but takes it on after getting a few concessions she wants. In an assignment she asks students to answer several simple questions and turn then in anonymously. She knows this will mean some insight into her students and she also knows she will be able to figure out who turn in the papers. The papers result in some disturbing responses and Alex is determined to figure out how deeply entrenched the "boys will be boys" attitude is, who knows about it, and how long it has been going on at the school. As she points out, "Stonebridge may look like Green Gables, but it’s the Bada Bing Club for the preppy set." Starting at a new school is never easy, but Alex seems to be facing an unknown nemesis... or two. 

A student, Gemma Russo, is determined to fight back against the boys, and the online Darkroom where they humiliate the girls, rate them, and score a secret competition between them. She's been planning her attack for years, but now she's gaining allies, including a first-year student named Linny, and discreet help from Alex. Gemma and her allies are planning to end the misogynistic culture prevalent at Stonebridge.

This is a well written social drama that captures the long pervasive attitude that sparked the "MeToo" movement. It really isn't a mystery, as the mystery part of the drama isn't really a mystery at all. It is easy to figure out where the plot is going and what the end game will likely entail. The narrative is told through multiple points-of-view, both teachers and students. The boarding school setting and the narrative through several students point-of-view, gives The Swallows a YA feel, although perhaps targeting an older YA audience. There is a chart Alex writes, and then her mom edits, that is a wonderful addition to the book and should be shared. 

The main female characters are complex and well developed, however many of the male characters are more simplistic caricatures of badly-behaving males and thus less realistic. There is also a small handful of students and teachers in the novel when there are surely more teachers and students around. It was also stretching believably that the secret would be kept by so many students and that the teachers would be allowing the boys to do what they were doing. The Swallows isn't quite as good as Lutz's The Passenger, but would be better enjoyed by an older YA audience.

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Trust Me When I Lie

Trust Me When I Lie by Benjamin Stevenson
Sourcebooks: 8/13/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492691150

Trust Me When I Lie by Benjamin Stevenson is a highly recommended mystery set in Australia.

Jack Quick produces a true crime TV series on the murder of Eliza Dacey, an English backpacker working as an itinerant grape-picker whose body was found on the land of Curtis Wade. Curtis was quickly charged and convicted for the crime. Jack's documentary is slanted to show that circumstantial evidence and police bias were responsible for his conviction. Jack's series results in the retrial of Curtis and he is set free four years after his conviction. Although Jack has private doubts about Curtis's innocence, he keeps quiet about his concerns. When another murder occurs after Curtis's release that seems to be an imitation of the first, Jack is conflicted. Is it a copycat murder or is Jack back killing again after his release?
Jack Quick is a well-developed complicated character with moral conflicts and more than his fair share of secrets and regrets. He travels back to the small town that was the scene of the first crime, essentially placing himself and Curtis in close proximity after the second murder. The prejudicial, insular, and isolated setting of the small Australian wine town becomes another character and plays an integral role in the plot as Jack searches for the truth.
The writing is straight forward, but there are twist embedded within that you won't notice - until you do. The tension increases incrementally and gradually, building to a climax in this novel. I will admit that it was slow going for a while and I had to purposefully keep focused on the plot until it picked up. Then it became clear that no one could really be trusted. The ending surprised me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Radio Dark

Radio Dark by Shane Hinton
Burrow Press: 8/20/19
eBook review copy; 130 pages
ISBN-13: 9781941681602

Radio Dark by Shane Hinton is a recommended quirky, dark, weird apocalyptic story.
Memphis is a custodian at a radio station in Florida when the apocalypse begins. In this end of the world scenario people fall inexplicably into a catatonic state where they require neither food nor water but they can be led around and posed. There is a DJ at the station who is still broadcasting and a local preacher who has a regular show when Cincinnati, an FCC field agent, visits the station with her procedure manual to enact emergency measures to keep the station on the air. As the power grid fails, Cincinnati's solution to keeping the station on the air and broadcasting to any survivors, is to build a tower of catatonic people (they are great conductors).

While there are a few comical incidences, there is no doubt that this is a weird, dark, bleak, odd story. Memphis is the narrator, but he is just relates the events without emotion or personality.  It is never revealed why the plague occurred, though the preacher blames it on the radio waves, on all the noise.  There is also no resolution to the plot. In some ways I feel as if I need to reread it in order to unearth any allegorical connections or references that I may have missed or some conclusion that slipped by me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Burrow Press.

We Are All Good People Here

We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White
Atria Books: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451608915

We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White is a highly recommended multi-generational drama that follows two college roommates over three decades.

The narrative begins in the radical 60's. Daniella Gold, from Georgetown, was raised by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother as a middle-class, liberal Unitarian. When she attends Belmont College in 1962, her roommate is Eve Whalen. Eve grew up as a privileged daughter of an old-money Atlanta family. Despite their different backgrounds, the two young women became best friends. For the first time, Eve actually notices prejudice and tries to improve conditions for their college house maid, but instead the results are harmful and ruinous. Daniella experienced prejudice before and continues to when she was told none of the sororities on campus would ask her to pledge due to her Jewish father. Eve, who had never experienced any prejudice, supports her and refuses to pledge in support of Daniella. They both transfer to Barnard College in NYC for their sophomore year.

At this time the two become more deeply involved in social issues and expand their awareness of the injustice and prejudice in the South. They also grow apart as Eve becomes more radical while Daniella works with others to bring about change and pursues her education. Daniella earns a law degree and marries. Eve takes up with a violent, radical anti-establishment, underground group and the two lose touch. When Eve is involved in a destructive tragedy, she turns to Daniella to overcome her radical past. The novel then jumps to the daughters of the two friends.

White excels at capturing the history, events, time, and place of the decades involved and covers the gamut of social injustices, racism, diversity, family, the South, history, religion, and the complexities of life. Starting with the sixties and moving through the decades to the nineties, the questions of social consciousness and morality continue to the end. If it sounds like it is a whole lot to cover, it is and although she does a very good job, it is almost too much to cover with any degree of serious insight. This means you have to go with the flow and follow the plot and the very basic social ramifications of the decades as presented to appreciate the novel. In reality, the entire time span is too complex to be captured in so few pages.

The quality of the writing is outstanding. The narrative is best viewed as women's fiction and a character study of the lives of these two women and their daughters. At the beginning of the novel when Daniella and Eve are well developed characters, but we lose this later in the novel when the focus shifts to their daughters. In some ways this was a regrettable choice as it makes only the early years of a woman's life as an interesting time. Sure we get glimpses of their lives, but lose the close contact with the characters.

In a chapter when Eve is radicalized, there is an incident with a cat that... (shaking head) is very hard to stomach and may be difficult for animal lovers to overcome. I hate having this scene in my head and I even skimmed through it after I realized where it was going.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Turn of the Key

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501188770

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware is a highly recommended psychological thriller with Gothic overtones.

Rowan Caine is hired for an unbelievably generous salary by a wealthy couple to be a live-in nanny for their children at their estate, Heatherbrae House, in the Scottish Highlands. The house has been remodeled and wired to be a smart home, where everything - lights, music, grocery lists, coffee maker, phones, cameras in rooms, and more - are all controlled by technology called "Happy." The three young girls who will mostly be in her charge seem sweet and the teenage daughter is away at school, so when Rowan learns she is in charge and being left alone with the girls in the house as soon as she arrives with only the handyman, Jack Grant, around, she thinks she can handle it. But all is not as it seems.

The narrative is told through a letter to a solicitor from a Rowan who is in prison awaiting trial for murder for the death of a child in her charge. Rowan wants to tell her side of the story, a story that wasn't listened to by her solicitor. Caring for these children is much more trying than she thought it would be. The baby is a handful, and the other two girls, eight and five, are hardly the sweet children she met at the interview. She heard that the house is believed to be haunted, but she doesn't believe in ghosts. However, Rowan is hearing footsteps at night and then there is the malfunctioning technology doing things like blaring music at night and operating lights at will.

This is an atmospheric psychological thriller that has a Gothic feel but combines it with creepy cutting edge technology in an isolated location. There is a feeling of unease and tension that is created right at the start and then both increase incrementally as the novel progresses. You know Rowan is in prison, but you don't know who dies and what happened. There are little clues, but they are carefully embedded in the narrative. You get the sense that Rowan might be an unreliable narrator, but you aren't sure. The ending was a big surprise for me, but it was satisfying and answered all my questions.

The characters are well developed, but bits and pieces are held back with good reason as Rowan tells her story in her own way, only revealing what she wants us to know, when she wants to tell us. This style helps increase the atmospheric creepiness factor. The other characters are all viewed through Rowan's point-of-view. Even the house and grounds become a character. Rowan may not be a likeable character, but she is believable in her thoughts and reactions.

The writing is quite good and I liked the way the plot unfolded and the story played out, carefully and incrementally. I was surprised that one of the huge plot twists which surprised me was withheld until the end. It seemed that it would be the first thing you'd want to tell a lawyer when you were awaiting trial for murder. Another final shocker, though, explained why. All in all, though, this was a very good thriller and I am going to look into more novels by Ruth Ware. 4.5

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

The Victim

The Victim by Max Manning
Sourcebooks/Landmark: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492667018

The Victim by Max Manning is a so-so examination of two choices and two outcomes during an attack.

Gem Golding, a public relations executive, has two choices when she is accosted in a parking lot by a man with a knife: to fight or to comply; to be a warrior or a victim. The attacker, Con Norton, is a psychopath who has made the attack a game where he alone decides what happens. Gem doesn't know this or the rules to his game, but her choice of how she will react will determine what he will do.

After the initial encounter where Con demands the keys to Gem's car, two different versions of the future are presented in parallel timelines. Chapters are alternately from the point-of-view of "Gem, the Warrior" or as "Gem, the Victim," and then within the chapters the alternate stories are told through Gem, Det. Insp. Elliot Day, Con, and Gem's boyfriend, Drew Bentley. Also present is journalist Matt Revell who is using Gem's story to advance his career. The alternate story lines oscillate between the two different outcomes based on Gem's initial decisions.

The two different story lines sort of reminded me of the choose your own adventure books my children were obsessed with while in grade school. In this case, while it was an interesting idea, I'm not sure it was a great choice. The choice to present the two different narratives in this rather contrived format simply didn't work for this reader in this story. Perhaps if Manning stuck with alternating simply on Gem as either a warrior or a victim it would have been a more successful alternate universe sort of story. Adding all the other characters and their reactions and choices to Gem's initial choice lessens the dual perspective of the consequences of her initial choice. I started out liking the book, thinking it might be an interesting way to tell the story, but it soon became tiring for me and the resolution to the two narratives were both not completely satisfying.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks/Landmark.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Perfect Wife

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney
Penguin Random House: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524796747

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney is a recommended domestic thriller featuring artificial intelligence.

Five years after her death, Tim Scott, the founder of Scott Robotics, has created a cobot, or companion robot, of his wife, Abbie Cullen-Scott. Abbie, the cobot, has memories, but not all memories, only those Tim has chosen to download. She knows she was an artist, mother, good cook, and a surfer. Tim, however, won't tell Abbie how she died. Abbie, while trying to regain whatever memories or knowledge she can, learns that she supposedly drowned in a surfing accident, but a body was never recovered and Tim faced murder charges in her death.

After starting out as an intriguing premise with the possibility of The Perfect Wife becoming a compelling addition to the science fiction genre, it soon became clear that little significant sci-fi evolution in the plot was actually going to happen. The novel, after the exciting opening, suddenly becomes a domestic thriller along the lines of the "new" woman researching the former wife. Few facts and little real usage was made of the AI needed to make a cobot and program one to resemble a dead person. In order to continue reading, I had to set my love of hard sci-fi aside.

The narrative unfolds through the points-of-view of Abbie the cobot and the Scott Robotics employees. The chapters alternate between the past and present and are told in the second and third person omniscient. It feels awkward when reading. What does work is the depiction of Danny, Tim and Abbie's Autistic son. Danny is the only character who felt real, believable. I'm afraid the rest of the characters fell a bit flat for me.

Viewing The Perfect Wife as a domestic thriller, with the new wife researching the previous wife, is what kept my interest in the plot. In that aspect, the writing certainly kept things moving and propelled the plot forward. The ending, however, was a let down, as were the many plot points left hanging.  This novel is okay - a good airplane book.

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

Strange Harvests

Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett
Penguin Publishing Group: 8/6/19
eBook review copy: 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399562792 

Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett is a very highly recommended, fascinating look at seven uncommon natural products.

In a synthesis of travel writing, history, interviews, and nature writing, Strange Harvests is a captivating, engaging, and thought-provoking adventure. Posnett traces the current and historical use of seven precious natural objects from their historical origin to their harvesting for use. These natural items include: eiderdown, swiftlet bird nests, civet coffee, sea silk, vicuña fiber, tagua, and guano. As Posnett points out, "Each object served an important purpose in the natural world... yet its removal, its harvest, need not spell discomfort, mutilation, or death." The book includes notes and an index. 

"The eider is a fat seabird, more penguin than duck..." that can be found nesting in Iceland today where they are a protected species. Eiders don't naturally nest in large colonies but after years of co-habitation they will congregate close to humans for shelter and protection when nesting. They line their nests with eider down, which can then be collected after the eider's leave. If a harvester cares for the ducks, more will come to nest, which, in turn, will increase the amount of eider to be harvested. The coat of a vicuña is another incredibly soft, insulating fiber that is treasured. Vicuñas roam in the Andean puna,which accounts for the development of their coat. After facing extinction, vicuñas are now protected by the communities that have a stake in their survival, with the reserve of Pampas Galeras at the forefront of the efforts.
The black-nest Swiftlet makes nests that are edible and treasured by the Chinese. The nests have been a major export commodity, perhaps as far back as the T’ang dynasty (618–907). "During breeding season, both male and female birds begin to retch and chew, excreting small strands of a thick, gelatinous substance from these modified salivary glands lying below their tongue. This they spread in arched form across the cave wall, inserting dark brown or black feathers from their plumage. After thirty days, the initial arch has grown to form a shallow cup into which the bird lays one egg." These nests are made on the roof of caves and harvesting them is a physical challenge. Recently harvesters have been making birdhouses to attract swiftlets to live in buildings.

The story of civet coffee, or kopi luwak, is as riveting as it is somewhat disgusting. Civet musk has been collected and sold for years. A more recent development is collecting coffee beans after they have been eaten and excreted by civets, and selling this as kopi luwak, civet coffee. The digestive enzymes are supposed to add a distinctive flavor to the coffee. Along the same excremental lines, guano has been collected off of some eighty islands off the coast of Peru. These island receive little rain, so the guano built up and accumulated to vast amounts of organic fertilizer.

The tagua nut is from a palm, Phytelephas, found mostly in northwestern South America. It is creamy white, dense, and smooth and its cellulose is arranged in concentric circles. In the past, it was discovered that the tagua nut could easily be carved into buttons, figurines, and toys. Plastic has now replaced the market for tagua buttons, but there is hope among botanists and development experts that if people learned they could make money for the harvest of “nontimber forest products” (NTFPs), it might induce forest conservation.

Bivalve mollusks, such as mussels, clams, scallops, and pen shells, produce silken threads known as byssus. This sea silk or byssus, is used as an anchor by the mollusks to tether themselves to the seafloor against the push and pull of the waves. Underwater, the beards look like brown moss, full of algae and small shells, but when cleaned and combed, they appear to be golden threads, commonly known as sea silk. These threads have been prized for their shine and strangeness for nearly two thousand years. Harvesting them is now prohibited. Until October, 2016, a weaver in Sardinia who called herself the "Maestro Chiara Vigo" ran the "The Museum of Byssus" and claimed a history of weaving that discounted others. Now that the museum has been closed, other women in Sant’Antioco, the descendants of the weavers from Italo Diana’s school, are exchange their stories and reclaiming their heritage.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Lost You

Lost You by Haylen Beck
Crown/Archetype: 8/6/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524759582

Lost You by Haylen Beck is a recommended psychological thriller.

Libby Reese has just sold her first novel and she is taking a well-deserved vacation in a resort with her three-year-old son, Ethan. Her husband left her when Ethan was a baby and she has raised Ethan on her own. Now she is enjoying the resort while trying to keep a close eye on Ethan. When he suddenly darts off into the elevator, laughing, Libby doesn't get to him in time and the door closes. Ethan then disappears and the search is on. We know from the opening that a woman has him. Security footage shows a woman, identified as Anna Lenihan, with him. When she is found, she claims he is her son. She must be crazy... or is she?

The plot starts out in what seems to be a very predictable direction and then, suddenly, jumps the track altogether, changes direction, goes back four years earlier, and becomes an entirely different novel. Now we meet Anna when she loses her waitress job in Pennsylvania. She is desperate for money when she learns about a medical research clinic that will pay well and she goes to an interview.  It's to be a surrogate mother and Anna decides to do it.

The sudden leap into a different story is startling and will completely throw you off track. Both of the female characters are well-developed and complex characters, with flaws and Libby is shown to be an utterly different character too. They are both emotionally unstable. It also makes the novel much more interesting, adding twists and turns in the plot and in our emotions. The novel also becomes creepier, and heads toward the unbelievable too. It is a compelling story and relatively fast-paced to keep your interest.
The novel was a rollercoaster for me. It began as a commonplace plot that took a different turn. It became a character study, with comparing and contrasting personalities. There are bad decisions and poor choices. Then it became menacing and... unbalanced. At the end I was unsure exactly how I felt about the novel as a whole.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crown/Archetype.

The Betrayed Wife

The Betrayed Wife by Kevin O'Brien
Kensington: 7/30/19
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780786045075

The Betrayed Wife by Kevin O'Brien is a so-so novel of psychological suspense. 

Dylan and Sheila O’Rourke are married with three children. She knows he's not perfect, but he has supported her through hard times and cares about her. He was supportive about moving to Seattle after her rough patch and they are doing well now, right? Or is Sheila just doubting herself and seeing things when she feels like she's being watched, followed, and receives strange texts. She even tries to be as supportive as she can when sixteen-year-old Eden turns up, claiming to be Dylan’s child by another woman. Her mother has died and Dylan is her only remaining relative.

Right from the start a woman dies, so you know there is going to be some kind of suspense. Next we are introduced to Sheila, who is anxious, being followed, hearing noises, and keeps referring to her difficult times. Teenage son Steve is a good character, but the other two children are forgettable characters. Then Dylan shows his lack of morals and we learn about his serial affairs. And Sheila knows about him, but stays with him. At this point it is hard to keep reading this rather pedestrian novel of suspense because it feels like we have heard this story before: cheating husband, loopy wife, illegitimate child, and a deranged lunatic on the loose.

The narrative is mainly told through the point-of-view of Sheila, Dylan, Steve, and Eden. It does keep you reading, mostly while shaking your head and muttering about... well, the whole plot. I kept reading just to see what happened, how Eden was involved, who the crazy neighbor was, and if Sheila finally got a backbone and told Dylan bye-bye. Perhaps I need to avoid books with serial philandering unfaithful husbands.  I'm not sure it was totally worth powering through, especially when I got to the ending.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington.

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena
Penguin Random House: 7/30/19
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525557654 

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena is a recommended domestic thriller.

In Hudson Valley city of Aylesford, N.Y., we know a killer is in the neighborhood. Lawyer Robert Pierce reports his wife, Amanda, missing, but the police and neighbors think she left him. At Paul and Olivia Sharpe's house, they discover that their teenage son, Raleigh, has been breaking into neighborhood houses and hacking into their computers, learning their secrets. Olivia makes Raleigh show her the two houses he broke into and she secretly sends them anonymous letters apologizing for her son's actions. This sets off one of the recipients to start going house to house to discuss this home invasion and wanting to know who the teen is. Suddenly the information pipeline goes rampant and starts spilling over with all manner of personal secrets and promiscuous affairs.

So, the plot does move along and suspects keep piling up as new information is uncovered. Lapena throws out all sorts of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The characters, however,  are not particularly well developed and there really isn't anyone you want to support. You might want to shake a few people and tell them to snap out of it, but they are all caricatures and don't feel like real people. While suspense keeps the novel rolling along, mainly because everyone is sleeping around - or with Amanda - and everyone is a suspect, none of the characters are memorable or interesting. Olivia is just plain stupid. What functioning adult would ever think it would be a good idea to send out anonymous letters telling people their house was broken into? Once she did that my interest and engagement in the plot plummeted. Basically, I didn't really care what happened to any of these people and kept reading for the big twist and final reveal. This is a novel to read for the suspense rather than the clever writing.

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