Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Family Upstairs

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
Atria Books: 11/5/19
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501190100 

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended un-put-downable psychological thriller featuring a dysfunctional family.

Libby Jones was adopted as a baby at ten months old, and now, on her twenty-fifth birthday she receives the letter she has been anticipating for years. When she opens the letter she expects it will reveal the identity of her birth parents. She was not expecting to inherit their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. She also learns her parents died in a suicide pact with an unidentified man and that she has an older brother and sister who were teenagers at that time and who disappeared. Libby begins to research her background, not realizing that there are other people who also have been waiting for her to turn twenty-five.
The narrative alternates between the point-of-view of three different characters, Libby, Lucy, and Henry. Libby and Lucy's chapters are present day while Henry's tell the back story and document what happened in the house when he was a child. Lucy has two children and is currently struggling to get by in the south of France but wants to find a way to get back to London. Libby has an average, normal life working for a kitchen design company. Lucy has a vagabond lifestyle, homeless when the novel opens. The alternating points-of-view works exceptionally well in The Family Upstairs and I was invested in following all three story lines, waiting for them to converge and create a complete picture of what happened then to now.

The characters are all well-developed and definitely well-defined as distinct individuals. Libby is the grounded point-of-view that most readers are going to identify with as she researches her background and tries to find out what happened to her birth family. Lisa and Henry both present much edgier narratives - Lisa's based on her present day circumstances and Henry's on the encroaching nightmare of their past.
As expected the writing is excellent, both technically and in creating drama in the well-paced plot. Jewell establishes incredible atmospheric tension in this sometimes dark, disturbing story and I was glued to the pages for all three narrative threads.  As I was riveted to the pages and the story lines, I thought I had it all figured out; then there was a twist that was so unexpected it took my breath away. The Family Upstairs is truly an un-put-down-able psychological thriller.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Disaster's Children

Disaster's Children by Emma Sloley
Amazon Publishing: 11/5/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781542004077 

Disaster's Children by Emma Sloley is a so-so wealthy survivalists story incorporating a dystopian setting with a romance and mystery.

Marlo has been raised by her wealthy adoptive parents and a group of other wealthy like-minded survivalists in a secluded community in Oregon. She has lived in the isolated community for 20 years, since she was five. The community was started by doomsday preppers based on the approaching climate change. The residents call the outside world "the Disaster" and although Marlo has made a few trips to the outside world, she has spent most of her time secluded with members of their group. When Marlo finds a dead eagle, which after a search turns into five dead eagles, members are sure it is due to the Disaster outside their ranch.

The synopsis makes this novel sound much more interesting dystopian than it is in reality. The technical quality of the writing is good, richly detailed and descriptive, but Sloley loses track of how to take advantage early on of creating mystery, tension, and intrigue in her story. While the writing is important, ultimately I'm reading novels for the story, the plot. There were several chances to increase the apprehension for the reader when Marlo encounters mysteries and then.... she just moves on. The action didn't really start until I was already bored with and tired of Marlo. (The whole buying a designer dress when she visits NYC with her father on a mission to recruit new members to their enclave made no sense, especially when contrasted with her wanting to leave her sheltered home to work for a eco-group.) She is a very young, sheltered 25 year-old. After powering through the novel, the unanswered questions and cliff hanger at the end clinched the lower rating for me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Amazon Publishing.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Let Justice Descend

Let Justice Descend by Lisa Black
Kensington: 10/29/19
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496722355
Gardiner and Renner Series #5

Let Justice Descend by Lisa Black is a very highly recommended crime thriller and procedural, featuring murder along with plenty of political corruption and intrigue. This is the fifth book in the series featuring Cleveland crime scene investigator Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner.

"Anyone can be dangerous, when they have what they think is a good reason." Three days before the election U.S. Senator Diane Cragin is murdered. Someone rigged up her front door so she would be electrocute on her front step and her chief of staff suspects her opponent, Joey Green. Green is a corrupt city development director who has been accepting bribes and favors in exchange for favors and city contracts for years. When an unbelievably large amount of cash is found in a safe in Cragin's home, it becomes clear that she may not be squeaky clean either. Maggie and Jack delve into the world of political rivals, corruption, bribes and economic hit men. Meanwhile Jack is keeping an eye on Cleveland Herald reporter Lori Russo who is not only following the political corruption story, but also the trail of the vigilante killer. That case involves a secret cover up between Maggie and Jack.
Let Justice Descend features excellent writing, including an interesting, detailed, complex plot, and the return of two engaging, well-developed characters. This is a great combination of a political thriller and a crime/procedural novel and a wonderful addition to the series. While I have read two previous books in the series and not all four, I was still able to easily follow the narrative and I think a reader new to the series could also easily understand the interaction between Maggie and Jack. Some of my enjoyment was because of the political intrigue and corruption tied into the case, so this would be a great choice for other readers who enjoy crime novels and political thrillers.
"... the twenty-four hour channels, who have discovered the same thing: the economic beauty of a built-in customer base. They can chat away for hours and hours, not about what has actually happened but about what might have happened and what they think might happen and their opinion of what happened or what they think should happen. Why? Because it’s easy and it’s cheap. You don’t have to do any investigation or any real news-gathering." Truth.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington Publishing

The Best of Greg Egan

The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan
Subterranean Press: 10/31/19
eBook review copy; 736 pages
deluxe edition ISBN-13: 9781596069428

The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan is a very highly recommended collection of twenty stories spanning 1990 to 2019. Egan is a Modern Master of science fiction from Australia and all of these stories are winners.
The twenty stories in this collection are arranged chronologically and were all chosen by Egan as being the best of those covering his career from the last thirty years. As Egan writes in the afterward: "If there is a single thread running through the bulk of the stories here, it is the struggle to come to terms with what it will mean when our growing ability to scrutinize and manipulate the physical world reaches the point where it encompasses the substrate underlying our values, our memories, and our identities. While the prospect of engineering our minds might still seem remote, anyone who has read a few case studies by the late Oliver Sacks will understand that we have already confronted the materiality of the self in the starkest terms."

These are all intelligent, hard science fiction stories with technical and scientific advancements as an integral part of the plot, but they also explore relationships, personal identity, and morality of the characters. The writing is exceptional and intelligent. Some of the stories are interconnected. All of them have well-developed, diverse and interesting characters. This is a door-stopper of a collection but it was well worth the time invested in reading it. For all of you who enjoy and appreciate hard science fiction, The Best of Greg Egan would make a great addiction to your science fiction collection. This is an amazing collection and I enjoyed every story.

Contents include: Learning to Be Me; Axiomatic; Appropriate Love; Into Darkness; Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies; Closer; Chaff; Luminous; Silver Fire; Reasons to Be Cheerful; Oceanic; Oracle; Singleton; Dark Integers; Crystal Nights; Zero for Conduct; Bit Players; Uncanny Valley; 3-adica; Instantiation; and an Afterword.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Subterranean Press

Alien Archives

Alien Archives by Robert Silverberg
Three Rooms Press: 10/29/19
eBook review copy; 404 pages
ISBN-13: 9781941110805

Alien Archives: Eighteen Stories of Extraterrestrial Encounters by Robert Silverberg is a very highly recommended collection of previously published short stories, spanning decades, all featuring extraterrestrials.

Any collection of stories of any type from science fiction Grand Master Robert Silverberg is well worth immediately purchasing. Silverberg "wrote these stories, the oldest one in 1954 and the most recent almost half a century later, with two beliefs held firmly in mind: 1) We are not alone. The universe is full of non-human life-forms. 2) We are never going to encounter any of these alien beings." The great thing about any Silverberg collection is that he writes a new introduction to all the stories documenting when and why they were written and other pertinent facts.

All of these stories are, naturally, well written. It is delightful to see stories published in pulp magazines side by side with more recent stories, documenting, in many ways, the history of science fiction stories. The plots vary greatly and highlight Silverberg's skill and diversity in presenting different characters and scenarios while telling a compelling, engaging story. Some stories, obviously, feel dated because they were written decades earlier, but they are all wildly entertaining. 

Contents include: The Silent Colony; En Route to Earth; The Way to Spook City; Amanda and the Alien; One-Way Journey; The Shadow of Wings; Gorgon Planet; Flies; Sundance; Bride; Something Wild is Loose; Schwartz Between the Galaxies; Diana of the Hundred Breasts; Sunrise on Mercury; Alaree; The Soul-Painter and the Shapeshifter; To the Dark Star; Beauty in the Night
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Three Rooms Press.

Monday, October 21, 2019


Interference by Sue Burke
Tor/Forge Books: 10/22/19
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250317841
Semiosis Duology #2

Interference by Sue Burke is a very highly recommended science fiction story following colonists on Pax and continuing the story from Semiosis.

"Over two hundred years after the first colonists landed on Pax, a new set of explorers arrives from Earth on what they claim is a temporary scientific mission. But the Earthlings misunderstand the nature of the Pax settlement and its real leader. Even as Stevland attempts to protect his human tools, a more insidious enemy than the Earthlings makes itself known. Stevland is not the apex species on Pax."

This is a totally engaging and fascinating science fiction story. The opening chapters set up the Earth as a disturbing dystopian society and introduce some of the new group of scientists that will be setting out to visit Pax for research. Then we are reintroduced to the planet Pax, a habitable planet fifty-six light years away, where a group of colonists already live. On Pax there is a stable community and a relationship between three species that are now living together as pacifists on the planet. The humans, who were originally colonists from Earth, are living in a community with the Glassmakers, large arthropod-like beings, and Svetland, an intelligent bamboo species. On Pax, both Glassmakers and humans coexist with Svetland, who privately considers them service animals. When the research group arrives, it upsets the balance the community has established. But there is something else afoot that is threatening every species.

I haven't read Semiosis, but I was able to follow the narrative in Interference without a problem and pick up enough clues to fill in anything I missed. (I am buying Semiosis, though, based on how good Interference is.) Svetland narrates much of the book, but chapters are also told from the point-of-view of other characters - Earth humans, Pax humans, Glassmakers, and plants. The characters newly arriving from Earth, started out their mission with conflicts that they bring to Pax, and immediately cause problems. The conflicts and tension the Earth humans introduce are compounded by a new group of humans arriving and an unknown threat.

The wide variety of characters are all interesting and well developed in relationship to the narrative as a whole. The single chapters from the point-of-view of different characters help provide a richness to the story as they furnish insight into what characters are thinking. These chapters add depth and discernment to the plot through the wide variety of opinions and thoughts. The writing is excellent, thoughtful, astute, and intelligent. It highlights how assumptions (on all sides/ from all species) can lead to problems, but also revelations. This is an outstanding novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tor/Forge Books.

Sudden Traveler

Sudden Traveler by Sarah Hall
HarperCollins: 10/8/19
hardcover; 128 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062959225

Sudden Traveler by Sarah Hall is a recommended collection of seven short stories.

"The characters in Sudden Traveler walk, drive, dream, and fly, trying to reconcile themselves with their journeys through life, death, and love. Science fiction meets folktale and philosophy meets mortality.... Sarah Hall opens channels in the human mind and spirit and takes us to the very edge of our possible selves."

The writing is gorgeous in these stories. Some stories resonated with me immediately while others left me pausing to contemplate the often symbolic meaning behind the existential stories, some of which are populated with troubled or contemplative characters. Hall does not make it easy for the reader. This may be a collection that I need to return to, after some thought, and delve into the stories again, perhaps with new insight. There is no doubt that the cover is absolutely beautiful.

Contents include:
M: A woman discovers, through pain, that she has the ability to literally transform and fly.
The Woman the Book Read: A man unexpectedly sees a woman he last knew as a child.
The Grotesques: Dilly has a hard time coping with modern life - and living with her mother
Who Pays?: A well lies between two warring countries and is the site where young men from many villages gather once a year.
Orton: A woman travels to a place of strong memories to shut down her pacemaker.
Sudden Traveler: A woman sits in the car with her baby while her father and brother dig the grave for her mother.
Live That You May Live: A young girl drams of birds coming, and her mother comforts her, but has stories.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from HarperCollins for review purposes at TLC Book Tours

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Author Links: Website and Facebook


Monday, October 14, 2019

American Epidemic

American Epidemic by John McMillian (Editor)
The New Press: 10/22/2019
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781620975190

American Epidemic: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Opioid Crisis is a very highly recommended collection of powerful published articles on the opioid crisis. This is a heart-breaking eye-opening examination of the devastation caused by the increasing addiction to opioids and an essential introduction to the crisis.
This collection is a must read. It will focus your attention on what matters, what is happening right now. In the introduction John McMillian writes: "In 2018, drug overdose deaths in the United States set a new record. There were more than 70,000 of them, mostly due to opioids." He continues: "Let’s put this in perspective. Seventy thousand is far more than the number of Americans who died in 2017 from car accidents (40,100), or guns (39,773), or suicide (47,173). It is more than the number of American servicemen killed during the entire Vietnam War (58,220). It is far more than all of the American deaths from 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War, combined (39,396, as of March, 2019). Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under fifty. Life expectancy in the United States has diminished over the past three years - a phenomenon that is unprecedented since World War II." Where is the outrage?
I know two families who have had a child die due to an opioid addiction. I can't be the only one. Why is this very real and growing catastrophe being overlooked in favor of "maybe" crises. What is actually stealing childhoods and causing harm? These pieces published between 2012 and 2018 cover the crisis and the very real people who are affected and who are dealing with this epidemic - users, families, medical personal, and law enforcement. The well-written and informative articles cover the crisis in different areas of the country, although the epidemic is worse in certain sections.  Contributors include: Leslie Jamison, Beth Macy, Tom Mashberg and Rebecca Davis O'Brien, Sam Quinones, Susan Dominus, Eli Saslow, Eric Eyre, Sarah Resnick, Germna Lopez, Christopher Caldwell, Margaret Talbot, James Winnefeld, Joe Eaton, Katharine Q. Seelye, Andrew Sullivan, Gabor Maté, Johann Hari, Adi Jaffe, Maia Szalavitz, and Julia Lurie.

I had several sections highlighted from my reading but I want to share two. One is from Christopher Caldwell in First Things (April 2017): "The culture of addiction treatment that prevails today is losing touch with such candor. It is marked by an extraordinary level of political correctness. Several of the addiction professionals interviewed for this article sent lists of the proper terminology to use when writing about opioid addiction, and instructions on how to write about it in a caring way. These people are mostly generous, hard-working, and devoted. But their codes are neither scientific nor explanatory; they are political."
The second is based on the fact that the brain isn't fully developed until people are in their mid-twenties, which made what James Winnefeld wrote in "Epidemic," from The Atlantic on November 29, 2017 eye-opening: "Because the brain is so adaptable while it’s still developing, it’s highly susceptible to dependencies, even from non-opioids such as today’s newly potent marijuana strains. We now understand that early marijuana use not only inhibits brain development; it prepares the brain to be receptive to opioids. Of course, like opioids, marijuana has important medical applications, and it seems to leave less of a mark on a fully matured brain. It’s worth examining whether it would make sense to raise the legal marijuana age to 25, when the brain has fully matured."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of The New Press.

The Way I Heard It

The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe
Simon & Schuster: 10/15/19
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781982130855

The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe is a very highly recommended collection of 35 of his favorite episodes followed by his personal stories.

As Rowe explains,"Like The Rest of the Story, the mysteries in this book tell some true stories you probably don’t know, about some famous people you probably do. Your job is to figure out who or what I’m talking about before I get to the end. Inside, you’ll find thirty-five mysteries pulled from my podcast. Think of them as tiles in a mosaic. Each of these mysteries is followed by a personal recollection. Think of those as the grout that holds the tiles together. Like the flap copy says: Mystery and Memoir for the Curious Mind with a Short Attention Span."

The Way I Heard It is a wildly entertaining collection of Rowe's favorite podcast episodes combined with a memoir. His personal anecdotes, stories, and memories, or the grout, is just as entertaining and delightful as the stories. Rowe has a personable, charming, down-to-earth manner which makes reading this a pleasure. Don't let the self-deprecating humor deceive you, the stories are all compelling and enticing, while the personal recollections are humorous, interesting, and diverting, as well as imparting some wisdom along the way.
Once I started The Way I Heard It, I looked forward to reading more, saying "just-one-more-chapter" and thus it ended way-too-soon. It was a pleasure from start to finish. The writing is excellent. The Rest of the Story segments are interesting, and Rowe's stories are varied, interesting, and entertaining. This is one of the best nonfiction books of the year, especially if I base my choices on sheer pleasure while reading. All I can say is read this book. The Way I Heard It would be a great gift.

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

A Pilgrimage to Eternity

A Pilgrimage to Eternity by Timothy Egan
Penguin Random House: 10/15/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735225237

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan is a very highly recommended spiritual, historical, and physical travelogue.

Timothy Egan was raised Catholic but has experienced over time a lapse of faith and disillusionment with the Church, especially after the sexual abuse scandal. Egan has decided that, "It’s time to force the issue, to decide what I believe or admit what I don’t." He embarks on a pilgrimage, visiting historical sites along the 1,000-mile journey from Canterbury to Rome following the Via Francigena. "One reason I want to follow the Via Francigena is to experience layers of time on consecrated ground."

As he travels, Egan shares the historical and religious significance of the sites he visits and the events that occurred there. He walks where significant Christian figures and saints once traveled, meeting other pilgrims along the way. He starts in Canterbury, visiting the chapel where Queen Bertha introduced Christianity to pagan Britain, and makes his way along the major medieval trail leading the devout to Rome. He travels through France, Switzerland and Italy, discussing the monasteries, cathedrals, shrines, sites of miracles, and various relics along the way, while sharing the history of many of the important figures in the church who once walked in the same areas. Egan's pilgrimage ends in Rome at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City.

The writing is excellent in this fascinating, interesting, and personal account of Egan's travels as he shares his circumspect thoughts on his journey and the history of the church. I was engrossed in following Egan's pilgrimage from start to finish. This will likely be much more interesting to those who are or were raised Catholic, but the rest of us can also find much to appreciate in Egan's historical details and following him along his journey. But this is much more than just a travelogue, it is also a memoir. Raised Catholic, and having a Jesuit education, Egan has many personal memories tied to the historical sites he visits. He openly and honestly shares his doubts, struggles, and sometimes failures when dealing with questions of faith. I really appreciated his candid honesty and regret for not raising his children in a faith. 

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

Friday, October 11, 2019

Invisible as Air

Invisible as Air by Zoe Fishman
HarperCollins: 9/24/19
paperback; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062838230
Invisible as Air by Zoe Fishman is a very highly recommended family drama with a timely topic.

Sylvie Snow does everything for her family. She's working hard at her career, taking care of her family, doing all all the housework and errands, along with the myriad of other little things that are expected of her. She's also trying to plan the  Bar Mitzvah for her son, Teddy and taking care of her husband, Paul, who has a broken ankle. It is an exhausting, pressure-filled, never ending cycle. What makes it worse is that Sylvie has never properly grieved for her stillborn daughter, Delilah, who died three years ago. It is the anniversary of Delilah's death and to get through the day Sylvie takes one of the pain pills, Hydrocodone, her husband was prescribed but refuses to take. The Hydrocodone alleviates her stress and anger, while making Sylvie feel good, happy, calm, and patient, so she decides she will allow herself to take it, once in a while, to take the edge off and help her just get through until the Bar Mitzvah is over.

Although she started out with good intentions, Sylvie doesn't take the opioid occasionally. She begins to use it regularly and is soon addicted. While they can tell something is up with Sylvie, her family has their own issues. Paul has been mourning the death of Delilah and the distant behavior of Sylvie through excessive spending and his triathlete events. Now he's almost helpless with his broken ankle. Teddy is twelve, almost thirteen, love movies, and has no friends - until he meets Krystal. Teddy is also the first to realize that his mom is addicted to pills.

In Invisible as Air, Fishman totally captured my attention and presented some of the most realistic, well-developed characters I have read recently. I was not expecting to become so involved and immersed in this novel, but I understood Sylvie. The death of a child is a tragic event and you have to grieve your loss, and talk about it - but who wants to do that with you. I wanted to shake Sylvie and tell her to talk to someone, go to the doctor and tell her how you feel. Get help, for goodness sakes! But it is easier to keep rolling along, staying in denial, trying to hide your pain while it keeps eating at you. And keep doing all the things, all the time. And the whole family is doing this, hiding their pain and not facing it. When she turns to pills, it seems inevitable she would become addicted. It wasn't until the end of the novel that I discovered why Fishman was able to describe the feeling of loss but trying to go on, bless her heart.

The writing is excellent. The narrative moves along at a fast pace as the chapters alternate between the point-of-view of Sylvie, Paul, and Teddy. More information about each character is revealed along the way, and we see some of the root causes of the ongoing pain and the void they are all experiencing, and how they are dealing with everything. Obviously, Teddy knows more than his parents realize, as is the way with tweens (and teens), and he becomes more his own person rather than just their son. Paul has been hiding his shopping addiction too - and I like that Fishman has Paul addicted to online shopping rather than falling into a stereotype.

Invisible as Air would be an excellent choice for a book club. Here is a family in crisis that appears for all intents and purposes to those around them as doing well. It covers the timely topic of an opioid addiction, as well as the loss of a loved one, other addictions, first love, and facing some hard realities. The ending was a satisfying denouement for me and I appreciated how Teddy was the one to help his parents confront everything they were avoiding. Fantastic writing and an emotionally compelling narrative make this a winner.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins for the TLC Book tour. 

Author Links: WebsiteTwitter, and Facebook

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
Penguin Random House: 10/15/19
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385539302

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson is a very highly recommended guide to the human body.

Sure we have bodies, but have you ever pondered how and why your body functions the way it does. Bryson takes us on an entertaining, compatible tour of our bodies and the modern understanding of why it works the way it does and what all the various bits and parts do. He talks to doctors and scientists, presenting facts, a scientific history, and interesting tidbits about our various body parts. He manages to present his information in an informative, fascinating, and interesting manner.
The writing is terrific. Bryson, known for his conversational style of writing, along with his dry humor and wit, makes this narrative an interesting, entertaining, and educational experience. Chapters start out with the skin and hair, microbes, the brain, and then work their way down and through the body the brain. This isn't a biology textbook so you aren't going to find all the information about everything, but it is a fascinating book full of extraordinary facts and also disproves several falsehoods, like we only use 10% of our brains. (We don't. We use more.) There are several experiments and studies presented with amazing and engrossing results. The text contains chapter notes, a bibliography, and index.

Two quick, but interesting facts: a teenager's brain is only about 80% developed and all the synapses aren't fully wired until a person is in their mid to late twenties. This explains a whole lot. Another interesting point was about MSG, which no scientists have ever found any reason to condemn, but it has a bad reputation all based on a letter, not a study or article, in the 1968 New England Journal of Medicine. And that is just a small taste of the interesting facts and stories you will discover in The Body: A Guide for Occupants.

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

Monday, October 7, 2019


Sassafras by Trish Heald
Glasswing Media: 10/1/19
eBook review copy; 322 pages
ISBN-13: 9781733226806

Sassafras by Trish Heald is a recommended story of the plans of newly widowed Champs Noland and his dysfunctional family.

Champs Noland has lost his beloved wife, Pat, to cancer shortly after they moved into a retirement community. His plan is to leave Egret's Pond, or as Champ's calls it, Regret's Pond, and head out, with the urn containing Pat's ashes, to his fishing cabin on the Sassafras River. His children plan for him to stay at the retirement community. He plans to spend the remainder of his life alone, drinking beer and fishing off his rusty boat. Imagine Champs shock when he arrives at his cabin and finds it all redecorated. Apparently his daughter, Laura, has been fixing it up so it could be rented out as an Airbnb - without telling Champs. Things go downhill from here.

Champs will be a memorable character for many readers, especially for some of his plans and actions once he reaches Sassafras River. This is a heart-warming story about a stubborn curmudgeon after the death of his wife and the story of how he and his family develop a relationship with her gone. All the characters are caricatures, representing a type of person, rather than feeling like real flesh and blood people. But, many readers are really going to like this story and will find Champ and all his ways endearing. There is an underlying story about acceptance and how families are what you make them.

This is reminiscent of all the other recent books about old curmudgeons (set off by the excellent A Man called Ove), who are also somewhat lovable in a crusty way. It is well-written and creates a sense of place; however, the crusty-old-man jokes became tiring after a while (and I began to wonder if Heald actually knows any man in their 70's). It is a lighthearted satirical novel, though, and many people will respond to it favorably.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Glasswing Media via Netgalley.

The Forest City Killer

The Forest City Killer by Vanessa Brown
ECW Press: 10/4/19
eBook review copy; 328 pages
ISBN-13: 9781770415034

The Forest City Killer: A Serial Murderer, a Cold-Case Sleuth, and a Search for Justice by Vanessa Brown is a highly recommended examination of cold cases and the likelihood that a serial killer is the culprit.

Fifty years ago, a serial killer prowled the quiet city of London, Ontario, making it, unofficially, the serial killer capital of Canada. Young women and boys were abducted, raped, and murdered, beginning with the 1969 murder of 15-year-old Jackie English. Homicide Detective Dennis Alsop spent the next 40 years, until his death, hunting for her killer - and the killer of the other victims. Author Vanessa Brown was allowed to look through Alsop's case files, revealing previously undisclosed evidence and statements from witnesses. Alsop believed that there were seven homicides that were linked. The questions remain though. Was it one killer or two? And could a DNA test reveal the identity of the killer? Brown believes that there were two killers.

The stories of the victims are heartbreaking, especially in terms of the time in history that they occurred. Parents weren't concerned about stranger danger or advising their children to be careful and watch their surroundings. I know this simply because I was a child at this time and actually had an abduction scare. Brown does a good job describing the town, the setting, and placing herself personally in the cases while researching them because she knows the area and the stories swirling around the community about the murders.

While there is no conclusive answer as to the identity of the killer(s), Brown brings many facts to light about the investigations, suspects, and the cases. In some instances, some of the information is unnecessary or unfocused, but that could be because I had an ARC. Brown knows a lot about the cases and she does include a lot of information and the book includes copious footnotes. There are also many photos, which help to focus on the area and what Brown is pointing out. Now I'll be following any news on the Forest City killer cold cases to see if the killer(s) is ever identified.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of ECW Press.

A Bitter Feast

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie
HarperCollins: 10/8/19
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062271662
Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James Series #18

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie is a highly recommended addition to the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James Series.

Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, and their children have been invited to Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot's family estate located in the Cotswolds. The Talbot family is wealthy and influential, and the weekend is going to feature Lady Addie's, Melody's mother, charity harvest luncheon which is being prepared by Chef Viv Holland. Viv was a well-known chef in London, but after leaving there and laying low for a while, she is now cooking for a pub and quickly reestablishing a name for herself. This event will be attended by local big wigs, as well as the national food press and restaurant critics.

The whole event is plagued from the start. Viv has a chef she previously worked with show up and later that evening he is involved in a fatal traffic accident when the car he is riding in hits Duncan's car as he is headed to Talbot's estate. Duncan is injured but will recover, but this accident heralds the start of a weekend full of investigations to assist the local understaffed PD. There is a whole lot going on, but is it all tied to Viv's past or is there something else behind the nefarious activities.

This is a comfortable continuation of the well-written, long running series. We know the characters and can easily slip into the current story and situation as the new characters are introduced and the mystery needs to be solved. The narrative covers the present day events and alternates to tell the story of Viv's past in the London restaurant scene. The characters are well-developed over the course of the series. It's difficult for me to evaluate character development based on this one book - I know these people. While I think it is likely best appreciated by readers of the series, it could also be read as a stand-alone, although there are enough references to things to keep you up to speed, but also to encourage reading the whole series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Lying Room

The Lying Room by Nicci French
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062676726

The Lying Room by Nicci French is a highly recommended murder mystery.

Neve Connolly has a secret: she has been having an affair with her new boss, Saul Stevenson. She had just spent the evening before with him, so when she receives a text early the next morning asking her to come to his apartment, naturally she secretly makes it part of her morning plans. While she knows her affair is wrong, it is an escape from the pressures at home. When she arrives at his apartment, Neve finds Saul has been brutally murdered. Just before calling the police, she pauses and debates what her involvement in the murder investigation will do to her family. Neve decides to clean up the apartment, removing all traces of her from it and their affair, and do nothing, knowing there is a killer on the loose.

When the murder is discovered, Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Hitching visits the work place and talks to everyone there, including Neve. Now the lying game starts. Hitching is clever and Neve needs to stay one step ahead of him, but the investigation and all the interpersonal complications is becoming complicated and involved. Each new lie and revelation causes more complications for Neve.

Neve is a well-developed character, although, for me at least, she started out not very sympathetic after the narrative starts out with her married lover murdered and her covering it up. From that point on the treatment of her as a trusted friend and confidant for many people, as well as a caring mother and wife, took some time to believe. Hitching keeps coming around to question Neve as the web of lies grows and expands, and the melodrama increases with each new chapter.

The action is well paced and descriptive. The writing is good, but seemed to improve as the novel progressed and the complications ensued. I did find it a struggle to keep my interest in the plot at the beginning. Once the narrative reaches the point where more secrets are exposed and the investigation is continuing to include questioning Neve, my involvement and interest in the story line increased. It culminates at the point when Neve begins to feel that she actually can't trust anyone. By the way, there are clues left along the way for astute readers to pick up and heighten interest in the identity of the killer. The denouement is satisfying, but also seems a bit of a stretch.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.