Tuesday, December 29, 2020

2020 Books

Here is the 2020 list of the books I've read and my top reads of the year. I've pared my lists down as much as I'm willing to do and added a separate list for procedurals. It was an excellent year in books!

Top 16 fiction; in order of review date
1. Eden Mine by S. M. Hulse, 2/5/20
2. Let the Willows Weep by Sherry Parnell, 3/25/20
3. The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel, 3/25/20
4. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, 3/29/20
5. The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver, 5/3/20
6. The Distant Dead by Heather Young, 6/7/20
7. The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, 6/21/20
8. Hare's Fur by Trevor Shearston, 7/5/20
9. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, 7/19/20
10. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, 9/13/20
11. Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger, 10/4/20
12. The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo, 11/11/20
13. The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington 12/28/20
not new releases this year:
14. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid 1/11/20
15. Bird Box by Josh Malerman, 12/5/20 
16. The River by Peter Heller, 12/6/20 

Top 8 procedurals; in order of review date
1. When You See Me by Lisa Gardner, 1/15/20
2. The Third to Die by Allison Brenna, 1/26/20
3. The Dark Corners of the Night by Meg Gardiner, 2/16/20
4. The Evil Men Do by John McMahon, 2/26/20
5. The Good Detective by John McMahon, 4/8/20
6. The Silent Wife by Karin Slaughter, 7/26/20
7. No Woods So Dark as These by Randall Silvis, 8/25/20
8. Every Kind of Wicked by Lisa Black, 8/26/20

Nonfiction top 12; in order of review date
1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, 2/23/20
2. Biography of Resistance by Muhammad H. Zaman, 4/19/20
3. Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson, 5/10/20
4. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price, 5/13/20
5. Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State by Barton Gellman, 5/24/20
6. Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier, 7/5/20
7. Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar, 8/9/20
8. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, 8/13/20
9. Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage by Dan Crenshaw, 8/28/20
10. 13 1/2 Reasons Why NOT To Be A Liberal by Judd Dunning, 9/30/20
11. American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World by Joe Berkowitz, 10/7/20
12. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, 11/26/20

short stories/ collections
Unrestricted Access: New and Classic Short Fiction by James Rollins, 9/27/20
My Favorites: A Collection of Short Stories by Ben Bova, 10/21/20
Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South by Rick Bragg, 10/25/20
Lord The One You Love is Sick by Kasey Thornton, 11/8/20 


Books 2020: 205 books read

January – 17 books
1. Hill Women by Cassie Chambers, 304 pages, 1/5/20, recommended, nonfiction
2. Athena's Choice by Adam Boostrom, 276 pages, 1/7/20, recommended
3. Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield, 464 pages, 1/8/20, recommended
4. The Other Mrs. by Mary Kubica, 386 pages, 1/10/20, highly recommended
5. Little Boy Lost by J. P. Carter, 400 pages, 1/10/20, very highly recommended *
6. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, 368 pages, 1/11/20, very highly recommended **
7. Losing You by Nicci French, 368 pages, 1/15/20, recommended
8. When You See Me by Lisa Gardner, 400 pages, 1/15/20, very highly recommended**
9. The Other People by C. J. Tudor, 336 pages, 1/19/20, very highly recommended *
10. Within Plain Sight by Bruce Robert Coffin, 432 pages, 1/19/20, highly recommended
11. Behind Every Lie by Christina McDonald, 336 pages, 1/19/20, highly recommended
12. Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah, 336 pages, 1/22/20, recommended
13. The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman, 368 pages, 1/22/20, very highly recommended *
14. The Third to Die by Allison Brennan, 464 pages, 1/26/20, very highly recommended **
15. The Misfortunes of Family by Meg Little Reilly, 352 pages, 1/28/20, recommended
16. The Inhabited Island by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 416 pages, 1/28/20, very highly recommended
17. All the Best Lies by Joanna Schaffhausen, 336 pages, 1/29/20, highly recommended

February – 15 books
18. Thunder Bay by Douglas Skelton, 312 pages, 2/5/20, very highly recommended*
19. The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray, 384 pages, 2/5/20, recommended
20. Eden Mine by S. M. Hulse, 272 pages, 2/5/20, very highly recommended ***
21. Ghosts of the Missing by Kathleen Donohoe, 320 pages, 2/9/20, so-so
22. The Lucky One by Lori Rader-Day, 400 pages, 2/9/20, very highly recommended *
23. The Adventurer's Son by Roman Dial, 368 pages, 2/11/20, highly recommended, nonfiction
24. Ten Days Gone by Beverly Long, 384 pages, 2/11/20, highly recommended
25. The Dark Corners of the Night by Meg Gardiner, 384 pages, 2/16/20, very highly recommended **
26. Willa's Grove by Laura Munson, 304 pages, 2/16/20, recommended
27. Do No Harm: The Opioid Epidemic by Harry Wiland, 304 pages, 2/19/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction
28. Watching from the Dark by Gytha Lodge, 352 pages, 2/23/20, highly recommended
29. The Unexpected Spy by Tracy Walder, 272 pages, 2/23/20, highly recommended, nonfiction
30. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, 608 pages, 2/23/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
31. The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman, 320 pages, 2/26/20, highly recommended
32. The Evil Men Do by John McMahon, 368 pages, 2/26/20, very highly recommended **

March – 18 books
33. The Companions by Katie M. Flynn, 272 pages, 3/1/20, recommended
34. Deprivation by Roy Freirich, 275 pages, 3/1/20, recommended
35. Actress by Anne Enright, 272 pages, 3/4/20, highly recommended
36. Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen, 352 pages, 3/4/20, highly recommended
37. The Silent House by Nell Pattison, 400 pages, 3/8/20, recommended
38. The Operator by Gretchen Berg, 352 pages, 3/8/20, recommended
39. Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox, 352 pages, 3/8/20, very highly recommended *
40. Revolver Road by Christi Daugherty, 304 pages, 3/11/20, highly recommended
41. Woman on the Edge by Samantha M. Bailey, 272 pages, 3/11/20, recommended
42. A Conspiracy of Bones by Kathy Reichs, 352 pages, 3/15/20, highly recommended
43. The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben, 384 pages, 3/15/20, very highly recommended *
44. Too Close to Home by Andrew Grant, 336 pages, 3/18/20, highly recommended
45. The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer, 384 pages, 3/18/20, highly recommended
46. The Last Odyssey by James Rollins, 448 pages, 3/22/20, very highly recommended *
47. Let the Willows Weep by Sherry Parnell, 270 pages, 3/25/20, very highly recommended**
48. The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel, 256 pages, 3/25/20, very highly recommended **
49. Roanoke Ridge by J.J. Dupuis, 224 pages, 3/29/20, recommended
50. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, 192 pages, 3/29/20, very highly recommended **

April - 16 books
51. Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick, 448 pages, 4/1/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction
52. Something She's Not Telling Us by Darcey Bell, 320 pages, 4/1/20, recommended
53. Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia, 352 pages, 4/5/20, highly recommended
54. The Good Family Fitzgerald by Joseph Di Prisco, 480 pages, 4/8/20, highly recommended
55. The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey, 416 pages, 4/8/20, highly recommended
56. The Good Detective by John McMahon, 320 pages, 4/8/20, very highly recommended **
57. Queen: A Chronicle of the Sibyl's War by Timothy Zahn, 384 pages, 4/15/20, highly recommended
58. Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, 640 pages, 4/15/20, recommended
59. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd, 432 pages, 4/19/20, recommended
60. Biography of Resistance by Muhammad H. Zaman, 320 pages, 4/19/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
61. The Silence by Susan Allott, 304 pages, 4/22/20, highly recommended
62. Dead Land by Sara Paretsky, 416 pages, 4/22/20, highly recommended
63. The Sweeney Sisters by Lian Dolan, 304 pages, 4/26/20, recommended
64. Have You Seen Me? by Kate White, 384 pages, 4/29/20, recommended
65. The Perfect Daughter by Joseph Souza, 368 pages, 4/29/20, recommended
66. All Adults Here by Emma Straub, 368 pages, 4/30/20, so-so

May – 23 books
67. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles, 352 pages, 5/3/20, very highly recommended *
68. The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver, 352 pages, 5/3/20, very highly recommended **
69. Queenie Malone's Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan, 352 pages, 5/4/20, highly recommended
70. Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich, 304 pages, 5/5/20, very highly recommended *
71. The Imperfects by Amy Meyerson, 384 pages, 5/5/20, highly recommended
72. What We Forgot to Bury by Marin Montgomery, 439 pages, 5/6/20, highly recommended
73. The End of the River by Simon Winchester, 44 pages, 5/6/20, recommended, nonfiction
74. Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson, 304 pages, 5/10/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction*
75. How to Bury Your Brother by Lindsey Rogers Cook, 384 pages, 5/10/20, highly recommended
76. The Last High by Daniel Kalla, 320 pages, 5/10/20, highly recommended
77. This Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf, 336 pages, 5/13/20, highly recommended
78. Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price, 624 pages, 5/13/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction**
79. The Wife Stalker by Liv Constantine, 320 pages, 5/17/20, highly recommended
80. Brave Girl, Quiet Girl by Catherine Ryan Hyde, 300 pages, 5/17/20, highly recommended
81. Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan, 336 pages, 5/20/20, recommended
82. Dark Mirror by Barton Gellman, 448 pages, 5/24/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
83. The Falling Woman by Richard Farrell, 336 pages, 5/24/20, recommended
84. The Ballad of Ami Miles by Kristy Dallas Alley, 272 pages, 5/24/20, recommended
85. Fair Warning by Michael Connelly, 416 pages, 5/27/20, highly recommended
86. Sister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon, 368 pages, 5/27/20, recommended
87. The Last Flight by Julie Clark, 320 pages, 5/31/20, highly recommended
88. The End of the Day by Bill Clegg, 320 pages, 9/29/20, highly recommended
89. The Second Home by Christina Clancy, 352 pages, 6/2/20, recommended

June - 17 books
90. The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J. Sawyer, 374 pages, 6/2/20, highly recommended
91. An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee, 416 pages, 6/2/20, highly recommended
92. The Monsters We Make by Kali White, 272 pages, 6/7/20, recommended
93. The Distant Dead by Heather Young, 352 pages, 6/7/20, very highly recommended **
94. Last One to Lie by J.M. Winchester, 287 pages, 6/10/20, recommended
95. Always the Last to Know by Kristan Higgins, 400 pages, 6/10/20, highly recommended
96. The Last Scoop by R. G. Belsky, 328 pages, 6/14/20, highly recommended
97. The Lightness by Emily Temple, 288 pages, 6/14/20, recommended
98. Glorious by Gregory Benford, Larry Niven, 400 pages, 6/14/20, highly recommended
99. Spring Girls by Karen Katchur, 316 pages, 6/17/20, highly recommended
100. Gone in Seconds by Ed James, 356 pages, 6/17/20, recommended
101. You Can Go Home Now by Michael Elias, 272 pages, 6/21/20, so-so
102. The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, 336 pages, 6/21/20, very highly recommended **
103. Love by Roddy Doyle, 336 pages, 6/24/20, highly recommended
104. The Swap by Robyn Harding, 336 pages, 6/24/20, highly recommended
105. Where the Road Bends by David Rawlings, 304 pages, 6/28/20, recommended
106. Dark August by Katie Tallo, 448 pages, 6/28/20, highly recommended

July – 14 books
107. Love & Other Crimes: Stories by Sara Paretsky, 448 pages, 7/1/20, highly recommended, short stories
108. The Finders by Jeffrey B. Burton, 288 pages, 7/1/20, highly recommended
109. Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier, 276 pages, 7/5/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
110. Hare's Fur by Trevor Shearston, 288 pages, 7/5/20, very highly recommended **
111. Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay, 320 pages, 7/8/20, highly recommended
112. The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O'Neal, 352 pages, 7/12/20, recommended
113. The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman, 368 pages, 7/12/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
114. Never Ask Me by Jeff Abbott, 368 pages, 7/15/20, highly recommended
115. The Unidentified by Colin Dickey, 320 pages, 7/15/20, highly recommended, nonfiction
116. The Vacation by T. M. Logan, 384 pages, 7/15/20, recommended
117. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, 304 pages, 7/19/20, very highly recommended **
118. Playing Nice by JP Delaney, 416 pages, 7/22/20, very highly recommended
119. The Silent Wife by Karin Slaughter, 496 pages, 7/26/20, very highly recommended **
120. Their Last Secret by Rick Mofina, 400 pages, 7/29/20, highly recommended

August -21 books
121. Little Threats by Emily Schultz, 368 pages, 8/2/20, highly recommended
122. The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, 272 pages, 8/2/20, recommended
123. Bear Necessity by James Gould-Bourn, 320 pages, 8/2/20, highly recommended
124. Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms, 352 pages, 8/4/20, recommended
125. Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins, 320 pages, 8/5/20, recommended, maybe
126. The River Home by Hannah Richell, 368 pages, 8/9/20, highly recommended
127. Veritas by Ariel Sabar, 416 pages, 8/9/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
128. The Quiet Girl by S. F. Kosa, 384 pages, 8/9/20, highly recommended
129. Until I Find You by Rea Frey, 320 pages, 8/9/20, recommended
130. Somewhere in the Dark by R. J. Jacobs, 289 pages, 8/11/20, highly recommended
131. Still Here by Amy Stuart, 320 pages, 8/13/20, highly recommended
132. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, 288 pages, 8/13/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
133. My Lies, Your Lies by Susan Lewis, 416 pages, 8/16/20, recommended
134. Blood World by Chris Mooney, 448 pages, 8/19/20, highly recommended
135. The Best of Friends by Lucinda Berry, 284 pages, 8/20/20, highly recommended
136. Do Her No Harm by Naomi Joy, 288 pages, 8/25/20, highly recommended
137. No Woods So Dark as These by Randall Silvis, 448 pages, 8/25/20, very highly recommended **
138. Every Kind of Wicked by Lisa Black, 320 pages, 8/26/20, very highly recommended **
139. Fortitude by Dan Crenshaw, 256 pages, 8/27/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction**
140. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R Sloan, 448 pages, 8/27/20, so-so
141. Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine, 320 pages, 8/27/20, very highly recommended **

September -18 books
142. Daddy: Stories by Emma Cline, 288 pages, 9/2/20, highly recommended
143. One Step Behind by Lauren North, 368 pages, 9/2/20, recommended
144. Monogamy by Sue Miller, 352 pages, 9/9/20, highly recommended
145. Dear Ann by Bobbie Ann Mason, 352 pages, 9/9/20, recommended
146. One by One by Ruth Ware, 384 pages, 9/9/20, highly recommended
147. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini, 220 pages (of 880), 9/13/20, highly recommended
148. Creativity by John Cleese, 112 pages, 9/13/20, highly recommended, nonfiction
149. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, 352 pages, 9/13/20, very highly recommended ***
150. Don't Look for Me by Wendy Walker, 352 pages, 9/19/20, very highly recommended *
151. Plague by Julie Anderson, 290 pages, 9/19/20, recommended
152. Cursed Objects by J. W. Ocker, 272 pages, 9/19/20, highly recommended, nonfiction
153. Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti, 332 pages, 9/20/20, highly recommended
154. The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult, 432 pages, 9/23/20, highly recommended
155. The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline, 384 pages, 9/27/20, highly recommended
156. Jack by Marilynne Robinson, 320 pages, 9/27/20, highly recommended
157. Unrestricted Access by James Rollins, 416 pages, 9/27/20, very highly recommended, short stories *
158. The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker, 320 pages, 9/30/20, highly recommended
159.13 1/2 Reasons Why NOT To Be A Liberal by Judd Dunning, 256 pages, 9/30/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction**

October -18 books
160. Snow by John Banville, 304 pages, 10/4/20, highly recommended
161. Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger, 368 pages, 10/4/20, very highly recommended *
162. Never Turn Back by Christopher Swann, 320 pages (est.), 10/4/20, very highly recommended *
163. Every Now and Then by Lesley Kagen, 296 pages, 10/7/20, highly recommended
164. American Cheese by Joe Berkowitz, 304 pages, 10/7/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **
165. Boop and Eve's Road Trip by Mary Helen Sheriff, 304 pages, 10/7/20, recommended
166. The Cutting Place by Jane Casey, 400 pages, 10/11/20, very highly recommended *
167. They Never Learn by Layne Fargo, 352 pages, 10/14/20, highly recommended
168. Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow, 384 pages, 10/14/20, highly recommended
169. The Outlook for Earthlings by Joan Frank, 237 pages, 10/15/20, highly recommended
170. Still Life by Val McDermid , 436 pages, 10/18/20, highly recommended
171. Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell, 368 pages, 10/18/20, very highly recommended *
172. My Favorites by Ben Bova, 338 pages, 10/21/20, very highly recommended, short stories *
173. House of Correction by Nicci French, 528 pages, 10/25/20, highly recommended
174. Where I Come From by Rick Bragg, 256 pages, 10/25/20, very highly recommended, short stories**
175. The Silence by Don DeLillo, 128 pages, 10/25/20, recommended
176. You Betrayed Me by Lisa Jackson, 448 pages, 10/28/20, highly recommended
177. The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg, 304 pages, 10/28/20, very highly recommended *

November -14 books
178. The Preserve by Ariel S. Winter, 256 pages, 11/1/20, recommended
179. Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, 640 pages, 11/1/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction; re-release**
180. After All I've Done by Mina Hardy, 310 pages, 11/4/20, highly recommended
181. Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent, 352 pages, 11/4/20, highly recommended
182. The Move by Felicity Everett, 352 pages, 11/4/20, recommended
183. Out of Her Mind by T.R. Ragan, 284 pages, 11/8/20, highly recommended
184. Lord The One You Love is Sick by Kasey Thornton, 232 pages, 11/8/20, very highly recommended, short stories **
185.The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo, 416 pages, 11/11/20, very highly recommended **
186. Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachel Joyce, 368 pages, 11/18/20, very highly recommended *
187. Blind Vigil by Matt Coyle, 336 pages, 11/18/20, very highly recommended *
188. To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan, 352 pages, 11/22/20, highly recommended
189. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen, 320 pages, 11/22/20, recommended
190. The Tinderbox by Laura Elliot, 352 pages, 11/22/20, recommended
191. Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, 288 pages, 11/26/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction **

December -14 books
192. Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan, 352 pages, 12/2/20, very highly recommended, nonfiction *
193. Take It Back by Kia Abdullah 304 pages, 12/5/20, highly recommended
194. Bird Box by Josh Malerman, 272 pages, 12/5/20, very highly recommended **
195. The River by Peter Heller, 272 pages, 12/6/20, very highly recommended **
196. The Last to See Her by Courtney Evan Tate, 352 pages, 12/9/20, highly recommended
197. Girl Under Water by L.T. Vargus, Tim McBain, 394 pages, 12/13/20, highly recommended
198. Come Take Me: A Celestial Satire by E. M. Skyler, 209 pages, 12/16/20, highly recommended
199. Surviving Crazy by Frank Crimi, 284 pages, 12/16/20, highly recommended
200. Wrong Alibi by Christina Dodd, 400 pages, 12/20/20, highly recommended
201. The Wrong Family by Tarryn Fisher, 336 pages, 12/25/20, very highly recommended *
202. The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg, 352 pages, 12/26/20, highly recommended
203. How China Loses by Luke Patey, 400 pages, 12/26/20, highly recommended, nonfiction
204. The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington, 320 pages, 12/28/20, very highly recommended **
205.Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton, 288 pages, 12.29/20, very highly recommended *

Pickard County Atlas

Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton
1/5/21; 288 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton is a very highly recommended rural noir that focuses on past traumas amid the insular nature of a small town.

It is 1978 in a dusty town in the north central sandhills of Pickard County, Nebraska. Sheriff’s deputy Harley Jensen is on night patrol where he follows a routine as he cruises the area and checks on the empty farmsteads located throughout the county. He also keeps an eye out for Paul Reddick, a young man who always seems to be involved in trouble of one kind or another. In an attempt to bring some kind of closure after eighteen years, Dell Reddick Sr. has just made the decision to place a headstone over an empty grave for Dell Jr. who was killed in 1960 at the age of seven by a farmhand. Then the man committed suicide before he could tell people where he buried the boy and the body was never found. After this tragedy, the Reddick family has struggled. Virginia Reddick, Dell Jr.'s mother, withdrew into her own world and is said to be crazy. Rick Reddick is trying the best he can but his wife, Pam feels trapped and wants to escape from him, the constant struggle for money, and raising their three year old daughter.

Harley Jensen has a past trauma that other's in the county know well. In 1938 his mother committed suicide when he was young and the house where it happened is one of the abandoned farm houses on his regular patrol route. Harley is still traumatized by this, but can hide his emotions as a part of his job. The novel unfolds during six oppressively sweltering days and begins when Harley is on patrol and passes by his family's old house, he sees Paul Reddick's truck parked there and turns into the drive to see what trouble the youngest Reddick is up to now.

Pickard County Atlas is a wonderful example of rural noir and highlights the small town gossip and stories that can follow a family for generations. The slow start, while requiring some patience, eventually pays off and allows the tension to gradually build while the characters are introduced and their struggles with life are presented. As each new days unfolds, we become privy to the characters disclosing another incident, another misunderstanding, another enigma, another question, another deduction, another secret. As each new piece of information is added and builds upon the previous revelations, the novel becomes increasingly compelling, hopeless, and complex. The characters are well developed, and, although not especially likable, they are realistic as they head toward what seems a predestined fate. The quality of the writing and prose is excellent, making this an impressive debut novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Fortunate Ones

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington
1/5/21; 320 pages
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington is a very highly recommended literary coming-of-age story that also mixes in class differences with a political drama.

Charlie Boykin lived with his single mother and aunt on the working-class side of Nashville and relies on his friend to protect him until his mother arranges for him to be admitted as a scholarship student to the elite Yeatman school in the wealthy neighboring town of Belle Meade in the 1980's. Once there, Charlie is paired up with upperclassman, Archer Creigh, as his big brother. Arch embraces this role and introduces him to the world of privilege and wealth surrounding Yeatman and the students who attend the school. Charlie admires Arch's ease and causal acceptance of everything wealth entitles him too and falls in love with Arch's girlfriend, Vanessa. Charlie quickly adapts to life among the wealthy, although he never quit feels he is an equal. Yeatman does provide a safe place for his love of art to flourish. Charlie considers them friends, but does face several harsh truths and does end up distancing himself from everyone for a period of time.

In the opening of the novel, we know that Charlie is currently a Casualty Notification Officer for the Army. He learns that Arch committed suicide while visiting a family. This foreshadowing of what is to come looms over the whole story, which then goes back in time to follow the events leading up to the present.

The writing is absolutely superb in The Fortunate Ones. While it does resemble The Great Gatsby in some of the themes presented, it is definitely its own novel. Charlie is the narrator who feels a sense of loyalty, but also knows that his trust is misplaced. The stark contrast between Charlie's family with that of the wealthy, prestigious society families is clearly depicted and even as he feels acceptance, he also knows that he is not a part of them. He notices the acceptance of their privileged place in society, notes the deceit present, and sees details that they don't seem to recognize. Tarkington handles all his characters and the details surrounding their actions with a great deal of empathy and understanding even when they are exhibiting their worst behavior.

The character development is positively perfect. Tarkington allows the characters to tell the story in the narrative and the plot unfolds naturally from this. The result is characters who have a depth and complexity that resemble real life. Charlie's growing unease and questions about Arch develop naturally through the action in the plot. This is a coming-of-age story but it also covers a loss of innocence and  begs the question how far does loyalty demand you go and does it require compromising your principles?

This is an excellent novel. I loved Tarkington's debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and with The Fortunate Ones I am now decidedly a fan of his writing. 

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

Saturday, December 26, 2020

How China Loses

How China Loses: The Pushback against Chinese Global Ambitions by Luke Patey
1/4/21; 400 pages
Oxford University Press

How China Loses: The Pushback against Chinese Global Ambitions by Luke Patey is a highly recommended scholarly, critical look at China's rising interests in advancing their influence and agenda around the world. Patey is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International studies.

Patey points out that his book shows that the political differences and security tensions between China and many countries around the world are still present, and in some cases larger than before. China is aggressively advancing its own agenda in the Belt and Road Initiative and with it's economic expansion into other countries. While China has plans for integration into the global economy, countries who have done business with them are increasingly becoming concerned that China's authoritarian politics and state-led capitalism predatory and creates vulnerabilities for their independence and place in the global economy. "As a globally engaged and economically powerful one-party state, China seeks to challenge the core values of the world’s liberal democracies: individual liberty, freedom of speech, and rule of law. This begins with buttressing the Communist Party’s international image and quelling critique of the Party and China at an international scale."

The rest of the world is noting the inequality among China's own population, their modern surveillance of their own people and others, and their ingrained economic corruption. The overwhelming large-scale pollution that occurs in China and around the world in relationship to their other projects is resulting in the noticeable and unacceptable contamination of the air, water, and soil. Other countries are wary of China’s predatory economic agenda, inability to compromise, and their military expansion. China carries into negotiations with other countries a sense of entitlement and assertion of their own agenda that is off-putting. They are also increasingly inserting themselves into the politics of other countries. The cost of doing business with China seems to be increasingly too high for other countries to tolerate. At this point the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in relationship to China is uncertain.

This economic examination moves beyond looking at the global economy through the perspective of only the U.S.A. and China to view the direction of the relationships through the viewpoint of other countries across the world. Patey visited countries in Africa, Latin America, and Europe, to study their relationship with China. He visits the South Sudan, in Eastern Africa, where some of China’s earliest and largest overseas oil investments have been threatened by political instability and civil war. Then he travels to Argentina in South America, where he studies the turmoil surrounding large-scale, multi billion-dollar Chinese infrastructure projects. Next he visits Western Europe, traveling to Germany, Denmark and Portugal. Finally, he goes to Japan, a major trading partner to China, but one with a long history of hostile relations. Patey also looks at China's relationship with other Asian countries and India.

How China Loses is a fascinating, scholarly and detailed analysis of China's rise and how other countries are responding to it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Oxford University Press

The Butterfly House

The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg
1/5/21; 352 pages
Gallery/Scout Press
Korner and Werner #2

The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg is a highly recommended police procedural set in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the second book in the Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner series. The first novel is The Tenant. (The English translation was published 1/14/20.)

After an opening scene where a nurse is planning to give a patient a fatal injection, the narrative jumps back to six days earlier. Lead investigator Jeppe Kørner has just been told of a body found in a fountain with small incisions on her body. He later learns that she died from exsanguination, or the draining of all the blood in her body. Since Anette is off and at home on maternity leave, Jeppe is working with Detective Falck, who is decidedly more low energy compared to Anette. When another body is found in a foundation who died the same way as the first, a connection between the two victims leads back to the Butterfly House, a now-closed teen psychiatric facility. The murder weapon is even more bizarre, it was a  bloodletting device called a scarificator.

At the same time, Anette is not doing well on maternity leave. With a newborn, she is exhausted all the time, and likely experiencing some postpartum depression. She misses working. When she hears about the murders, she goads some information out of Jeppe and begins assisting with the investigation on her own.

Engberg further develops the characters of Jeppe and Anette and again provides interesting supporting characters. Jeppe is still a reserved and reticent character, but this time out Anette is also keeping quiet about her activities until she has something to share with Jeppe. Her husband doesn't know she is investigation on the sly at all. Again, the two complement each other's strengths and weaknesses. Falck, who is almost portrayed as a joke also comes into his own. The suspects are numerous and all of them are interesting individuals. You will have several predictions, but won't really know exactly what is going on until the end. The final denouncement of the investigation is surprising and worth the lead up to it.

Again, and qualms I had about the writing (some odd word usage, grammar, punctuation etc.) are certainly due to the translation. And since I have an advanced readers copy many could be all cleaned up in the final edition. My review rating is based on the plot and characters. Apparently this is a longer series that is being translated so hopefully we will see more of Jeppe and Anette.

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

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Wrong Family

The Wrong Family by Tarryn Fisher
12/29/20; 336 pages
Graydon House Books

The Wrong Family by Tarryn Fisher is a very highly recommended twisty psychological thriller.

Juno Holland, a retired therapist, is living in the home of Winnie and Nigel Crouch and their son, Samuel. Juno thought they had a good marriage and it seemed that she had found the perfect place to live out her last days until she moved in and started to hear their arguments. Suddenly it seems that their marriage isn't as good as Juno thought. She knows they have some issues, but she is shocked after she hears one secret the two share. But Juno has a few secrets too.

The alternating chapters are narrated by Juno and Winnie in this well written and expertly plotted thriller. Let me just say from the start that if you begin this novel and think you have an idea of where things are going or what is going to happen, hold that thought and keep reading. The plot starts off at a slower pace before the speed begins to incrementally ramp up to a gallop. It is also clear that something is off with the story we are hearing at first, until more information is revealed and the plot takes a creepy turn. You are probably going to be surprised more than once at the twists which take place and the secrets that are revealed in this deeply satisfying psychological thriller.

Don't take any of the characters at face value, keep reading and set predictions aside. The Wrong Family is one of those novels that you don't want to say too much about because you don't want to ruin it for another reader. It is worth reading, my friends, trust me on this.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Graydon House Books

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Wrong Alibi

Wrong Alibi by Christina Dodd
12/29/20; 400 pages

Wrong Alibi by Christina Dodd is a highly recommended novel of suspense.

Evelyn (Evie) Jones, eighteen, has accepted a job as a bookkeeper with Donald White in Rockin, Alaska. She is coming right out of a juvenile detention facility and is determine to make this job work for her sake and with hopes of maybe being reconnected with her mother and sister who now live in Rockin. She follows Donald White's instructions and his seemingly odd behavior right up until he disappears and leaves her to face charges of a double murder, theft, and embezzlement. Convicted, she faces life in prison when an accident miraculously results in her escape and fate allows her to start again. For ten years Evie has lived as Petie at Midnight Sun Fishing Camp, a remote wilderness camp. She eventually becomes the manager, but she has never given up on finding the man who called himself Donald White and making him pay for her conviction for his crimes and for her years of hiding. When she discovers he has returned to Alaska, she is ready to take him on.

There is no question that Wrong Alibi is a page-turner and will hold your complete attention right to the end. It's also true that many readers will be questioning some of the plot elements which require a suspension of disbelief along with enduring some rough transitions. There were a couple turning points in the narrative that really went a bit too far off track from the plot and actually detracted from it. But the action rolls along swiftly, either smooth or bumpy, and the twists along the way were interesting. I liked the novel quite a bit but I can't say it was one of the best written novels of suspense. The ending brought an element of surprise to the plot, although it was not entirely believable.

The characters while interesting were not fully fleshed out as individuals and several of them felt more like a "type" of character, or a caricature, rather than an actual human. Several characters never felt real for a moment. You know who is bad, who is good, who is dangerous, who is charming and the players never really stray from their assigned roles. Then again at time Petie/Evie was, truthfully, making quite stupid mistakes. But, even as I point out all these flaws in the writing and the plot, I did keep reading it and felt satisfied when I finished the novel. I guess sometimes you just need to read a novel for sheer escapism and Wrong Alibi will certainly satisfy that need.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Harlequin

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Surviving Crazy

Surviving Crazy by Frank Crimi
8/29/20; 284 pages
Independently Published

Surviving Crazy by Frank Crimi is a highly recommended hilarious post-apocalyptic tale.

Riley Knight has been struggling with his employment options when he is offered the opportunity to be a major-league scout for the Arizona Prickly Heat baseball team. He is sent off to the town of Jericho, Idaho, to scout a rumored incredible player. In a roadside diner on the way to Jericho an apparent solar flare sends out an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and all the electrical power goes out. This means phone lines are down, cars won't run, along with no power. What Riley discovers is that he is stuck at a remote diner with a bunch of crazy people. What he and the others don't know is that the road to Jericho, the city they are all hoping to get help from, is full of hazards and the city is filled with even more crazy people.

This novel is packed with quirky, unconventional, satirical characters and the dialogue is packed with one quip, joke, wisecrack, and diversion after another. The whole plot is one ludicrous, absurd, romp through a post-apocalyptic world full of people who didn't start out on the normal side of sane. This means their coping skills and survival instincts are also lacking. Basically the inmates are running the asylum and all of them are convinced they are reasonable people. Surviving Crazy follows the people stuck at the diner and people in Jericho. The comedy is non-stop, so much so it is almost overwhelming at times, and there are even a few twists thrown into the plot. In the end it actually showcases some veracity about the human condition.

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

Come Take Me

Come Take Me: A Celestial Satire by E. M. Skyler
10/27/20; 209 pages
Independent Book Publishers

Come Take Me: A Celestial Satire by E. M. Skyler is a highly recommended comical science fiction parody that includes a few lessons for all of us.

Behind the scenes the crew that monitors several websites, including ComeTakeMe.com, Marshall M. Shmishkiss is a legend. They have nicknamed him the Shmish and eagerly watch every new video he posts to the site as he records his training in both mind and body for his quest to become the most appealing and prepared human available for an alien abduction. Shmishkiss is sure he is ready to face whatever he faces as a galactic explorer. He faithfully watches Star Trek. He even has the perfect site where he goes on designated nights to await his possible choice as an abductee. So when he discovers the humans behind the website, Shmishkiss reaches his breaking point and makes one final video, which results in what he wanted - or did it?

Shmishkiss is an incredible character and he will immediately capture your devotion. You will wish him well throughout the entire novel, especially after you learn his backstory. The supporting cast of characters are all either wonderfully quirky and out of the ordinary, or distinctively ill-boding and self serving - this includes aliens and humans.

This is a hilarious novel that is firmly entrenched in the absurd. Certainly it has the same humorous look at residents of the galaxy as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and Dr. Who and since Shmishkiss clearly reveres Star Trek, there are elements of that too. It doesn't mimic any of them, but you'll notice their influence in Come Take Me. This isn't a novel that is written to be taken too seriously, but there are some poignant, touching moments and several thoughtful observations that are in the narrative. At the end it is suggested that sometime in the future there may be another Shmishkiss novel. This was a fun bit of escapism wrapped up in a funny, enjoyable novel.

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

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Girl Under Water

Girl Under Water by L.T. Vargus, Tim McBain
12/17/20; 394 pages
PI Charlotte (Charlie) Winters #2

Girl Under Water by L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain is a highly recommended investigative whodunit.

After her wealthy father, Dutch Carmichael's death is determined to be murder, his daughter Gloria Carmichael, as the executor of the estate, hires Charlie Winters to investigate her father's death. She can't find a will and it appears that millions of dollars from the estate are missing, as well as some art work. Her four siblings, Brandon, Marjory, Jude, and Dara, aren't thrilled with someone looking into the family's secrets, but they appear to be cooperating as Charlie begins her investigation. Then Gloria calls because she has uncovered some information that she wants to discuss with Charlie immediately and is coming right over to her office. Gloria is killed in a hit and run right in front of Charlie's office and it seems that her death may be tied to her father's death. Charlie's determined to discover the truth, but this could put her life in danger.

The plot takes off at a good pace and it is interesting as Charlie meets all the Carmichael siblings. Obviously one of them is probably guilty, but it seems that all of them may be suspects, might have a motive, and likely have secrets. Charlie has to make her way through the misinformation and distracting sibling dynamics between all of them to try and piece together what likely happened. She also has to get creative to track down Dutch's long-time mistress/girlfriend and discover what she has to say. Once the novel introduces all the players, it starts to pick up speed, with twists and turns along the way and is un-put-downable.

Charlie is an interesting character, both intelligent and intuitive. Charlie also hears the voice of her murdered twin sister Allie in her head. (Allie was murdered twenty years ago.) Allie and Charlie keep up a running dialogue between them, although much of it consists of quips and sarcastic comments from Allie with Charlie replying. I need to say right from the start that I found Allie's voice to be intrusive and distracting, and for me it detracted from the actual investigation. I had to actually concentrate on setting her voice aside so it didn't keep diverting my attention from the actual plot. For me it would have worked better to make Allie an actual real sidekick helping with the investigation rather than a disembodied voice.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Last to See Her

The Last to See Her by Courtney Evan Tate
12/15/20; 352 pages
MIRA Books

The Last to See Her by Courtney Evan Tate is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Gen is a romance writer who is getting a divorce from her cheating husband. Meg, her sister who is a doctor has a convention in NYC and invites Gen along so the two can have a girls weekend and celebrate Gen's freedom. After a dinner together when they both drank way-too-much, they return to the hotel and Gen decides to throw her wedding ring off the balcony and then takes a walk to get some fresh air. This is the last time Meg sees Gen. She falls asleep and when Meg wakes up, she realizes that Gen never returned.  Meg finally gets the police to listen to her about Gen's disappearance, although naturally she is the main suspect.

After the opening, chapters alternate between the past as told through Gen's point-of-view, and the present day investigation via Meg's point-of-view. Meg is frantically searching for Gen and trying to discover what happened to her as she has been told to stay in the city, while Gen's chapters begin to show some secrets and behavior that no one knew about. Some of Gen's chapters give a brief glimpse into her current situation. The investigation uncovers secrets and both sisters have hid things from each other and others. There is a whole lot more going on than is immediately apparent and some twists change the plot.

Ultimately the sisters are well developed characters, but it does take the whole novel to reach that point. This makes them not quite as relatable or, eventually likeable. The twists, some of which are predictable, come fast and furious toward the end, which does make it a very compelling psychological thriller. You are going to want to get to the end to get the final picture of what happened as well as read what happened to all the characters. Your opinions about several of the characters will change drastically with additional information. The ending is a surprise. This is one of those novels that might now be totally believable, but the journey to get there is compelling and will hold your rapt attention.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The River

The River by Peter Heller
3/5/19; 272 pages
Penguin Random House

The River by Peter Heller is a very highly recommended novel of friendship, a canoe trip, and survival.

Jack and Wynn have been best friends since they met at Dartmouth freshman orientation. The two have very different personalities and backgrounds, but they both love the outdoors, books, fly fishing, and canoeing. They have been looking forward to the late summer trip they have planned to canoe the Maskwa River in northern Canada. The two envisioned leisure days of paddling, fishing, and eating ripe wild berries. in the midst of their trip they discover a wildfire raging in the distance, but close enough that they need to be worried. They warn two men they encountered about the fire and later, when they heard a man and woman arguing through the fog, they decided to warn them too, but couldn't find them. The next day a man turns up, alone, saying his wife disappeared. Jack and Wynn decide to go back and look for the woman before the fire hits and this decision results in the two literally fighting for survival in the wilderness on the river, from the fire, for sustenance, and from homicidal vengeance.

The River is a perfect tale of survival that will grip your attention as completely as any thriller. Once I started reading I could not set it down. This is an amazing survival tale combined with an in-depth character study. Jack and Wynn are dissimilar young men with almost opposite personalities who approach life very differently. As the novel unfolds, we learn more about their backgrounds and their personality traits. This divergence becomes more pronounced as the narrative continues and the two are facing one ordeal after another. They both have strengths and weaknesses in their individual approaches to life.

The writing is absolutely exceptional in this accomplished tale of friendship, adventure, and adversity. Heller captures both of his characters, their experiences, the action, and the descriptions perfectly. His ability to portray the inner workings of his characters and then provide detailed descriptions of the wilderness, the river, the fire, is amazing. The pacing is impeccable. I simply can't say enough good things about The River. (It broke my heart a little when I didn't get a review copy of it and I'm disappointed in myself for not putting it on my reading schedule asap anyway.)

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman
2/10/15; 272 pages

Bird Box by Josh Malerman is a very highly recommended thrilling novel of an unseen terror.

One glimpse of whatever is outside drives people map, resulting in deadly violence or suicide. No one knows what it is or where is came from. The only way to survive is to keep your eyes covered at all times. Malorie is a young pregnant woman who finds her way to a safe house of survivors. That was five years ago. Today is thee day that Malorie and her four year old Boy and Girl are going to leave the house and travel down river by boat to a safe community - all while blindfolded so they don't even glimpse whatever is out there. The children have been trained to sharpen their hearing. Perhaps that will help in their terrifying journey.

The novel alters between chapter from five years earlier, when Malorie arrived at the house, which sharply contrast with the present day chapters of her trying to navigate a river while blindfolded. It is simply terrifying to know that the mere sight of something will cause the death of you and your children, but at the same time trying to travel twenty miles down a river blindfolded could result in the same thing. And then to hear something following you... Both time periods are fraught with almost unbearable tension that one small mistake could cause the death of everyone.

I thought Malerman handled the character of Malorie perfectly. When death is literally at your door or over your should all the time, you don't focus on anything that doesn't help with survival. Everything is reduced to getting through one more day without mistakes. The narrative is pared down to the bare bones of the story, then and now, because the basics are all that matters. You know that Malorie will be giving birth during the before chapters because she is traveling down the river with Boy and Girl in the boat. And yes, she does not named them until the very end.

I waited for a lull in review books to read this one and I wish I had picked it up sooner. I haven't seen the movie, but the novel is incredible. (It somehow seems appropriate to read this during a pandemic where many people are worried about an unseen virus killing them.)

Take It Back

Take It Back by Kia Abdullah
12/8/20; 304 pages
St. Martin's Publishing Group

Take It Back by Kia Abdullah is a highly recommended, thought provoking courtroom drama.

Zara Kaleel gave up her career as a lawyer and now works as a victims advocate at a sexual assault center. Her legal background means she is astute and able to support and help victims beyond the ordinary. When Jodie Wolfe, a sixteen-year-old girl, comes into the center and accuses four boys of sexual assault, Zara is quick to assist her. However, this is no simple case. It is sure to be a hot topic and could cause an explosive situation in the community because Jodie was born with neurofibromatosis which results in facial deformities. She has been an outcast her whole life, even at home, while the boys accused are all English Muslims from East London. Zara herself is Muslim. In this one case issues of sex, race, class, and social justice collide and the media storm and outrage from both sides immediately begins.

Once the novel takes off it is hard to know who to believe or if any of the teens involved are telling the whole truth. Abdullah does an excellent job presenting the case on both sides and all of the characters are portrayed as individuals, with strengths and weaknesses. The story told by all parties on both sides differs and the trial needs to uncover the truth. Cultural differences come into play too and you will wonder if Zara's own prejudices are influencing her. The frenzy caused by the media is captured perfectly.

The chapters in the novel are narrated by multiple characters and cover events in the past as well as the current situation, helping to make all the characters well rounded individuals. The differences in cultural beliefs based on gender and snap judgments made by society clashed with Zara's beliefs and Jodie's background. Each new chapter added more information and made the case even more complex. It is a difficult novel to read, but it is well worth the effort.

I was firmly going to give Take It Back my highest rating until the end. I've been vacillating back and forth over it.  No spoilers here. I was shocked by the twist at the end, but I also thought that a good lawyer would have had many more questions rather than acceptance of last minute evidence and wanted to have it examined by a professional. And then the next twist left me feeling that the twists just didn't seem to fit in with the rest of an excellent novel in several different ways. It is definitely a novel worth reading and would make an excellent choice for book clubs.

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Food: A Love Story

Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan
10/21/14; 352 pages
Crown Archetype

Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan is a very highly recommended hilarious book about, well, loving food and a culinary tour, of sorts, across the USA.

As Gaffigan points out: “What are my qualifications to write this book? None really. So why should you read it? Here’s why: I’m a little fat. If a thin guy were to write about a love of food and eating I’d highly recommend that you do not read his book." Cheeseburgers and bacon are high on the list, for obvious reasons, but that is a starting point for what Gaffigan loves. He makes it quite clear that he loves to eat, eats basically all the time, thinks about food constantly, and is ready to share his informed opinion about what he likes to eat across the USA. The Geography of American Food according to Gaffigan is: Seabugland; Eating BBQland; Super Bowl Sunday Foodland; Mexican Foodland; Wineland; Coffeeland; Food Anxietyland.

He also makes it clear in a humorous way what he doesn't enjoy. "Ten years ago nobody ate kale. Then someone (probably a kale farmer or Satan) discovered that kale had some health benefits, and off kale went. Now we are in the middle of a full-fledged kale trend or, as I call it, a kale epidemic." Kale is just one of the foods that are a no-go for him and he is entertaining while he covers what he doesn't like as much as what he likes.

This is my first Gaffigan book and I quite enjoyed the clean comedy, the inclusion of his wife and children in the stories, and that it is an entertaining lighthearted book about the foods he loves. Admittedly, I approached reading  it with a bit of trepidation after recent not funny political comments from him, but this was written years before that and was great escapism during a trying time. I found myself laughing or chuckling throughout the whole book. I'm going to leave with two quotes: "There are some people who don’t like ketchup. I think they are called losers." and something that needs to be made into one of those inspirational wall plaques, "I mostly eat ice cream at night in sweatpants, the uniform of ice cream eating."

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
6/28/16; 288 pages

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance is a very highly recommended memoir about growing up in a poor-working class family.

"It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith."(pg 144)

This is a personal memoir about about a growing up in a poor working class family who originally came from Kentucky’s Appalachia region and moved to Middletown, Ohio with the hopes of bettering their lives. What they found out is that it is hard to escape from the background of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma and that one generation tends to inflict this same treatment on the next. What they also had was love, strength, and support through their whole extended family. Vance tells his life's story, the trauma, the struggles with a drug addicted mother, how his grandparents provided a safe and secure place for him, his decision to join the Marines, and his eventual graduation from Yale Law School. Vance is still effected by his chaotic upbringing, as would anyone who experienced an upbringing similar to it. He and his sister Lindsay were subjected to "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs, daily and the consequences of their childhood reach into adulthood. Hillbilly Elegy is an honest look at his family, their struggles, and his personal analysis of the issues facing them and others like them.

At this point Hillbilly Elegy has polarized opinions from people, pro and con, many of which are basing their feelings on their political opinions and matters outside of the book. I'm reviewing the book, and it is an excellent memoir, bluntly honest, discerning, troubling, moving, and even provides a modicum of hope. The attitudes he sees afflicting those in Middletown can actually also be seen in other groups of young people who haven't had to deal with the same hopelessness or struggles. I don't know the answer, but I've seen first hand young people who take their jobs seriously and work hard, but at the same time I've also seen those who refuse to work and blame their eventual job loss, etc. on others rather than their own attitude. In answering the question Vance asks, "How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families..."  I would tend toward the idea that people need to take personal responsibility, but I know that is easier said than done. On the other hand, while people are dismissing the book based on politics, I also know first hand that coastal elites do look down on the rest of the country. Vance may have actually tapped into a larger concern that faces other groups as well as the hillbillies.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Tinderbox

The Tinderbox by Laura Elliot
12/1/20; 352 pages

The Tinderbox by Laura Elliot is a recommended psychological thriller.

Sophy and Luke's marriage is over due to his gambling problem. The two have separated and Luke has went to a treatment center. Sophie has sold her business and is selling their house in order to pay off his debts. In order to provide a home for her two daughters, 14 year-old Isobel and younger daughter Julie, Sophie has accepted the position as a live-in nurse for Jack Hyland. Jack was horrible burned and disfigured in a fire and will need help and assistance in his recovery. Sophie and her daughters will be living on the main floor of his home, Hyland Hall. When they arrive, the three are shocked to see the home is is such disrepair, but Isobel is the only one openly complaining. When Jack's nephew, Victor, who lives next door shows up, it becomes clear that he wasn't told about Sophy's job and that Jack and Victor are not as close as Victor claims. Victor, however, sets out to charm Sophy and the girls.

The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters through the point of view of Sophie or Isobel. We become well acquainted with these two characters and their thoughts. Sophy feels that this position is a life saver as it provides a home for her and the girls. Isobel calls the upstairs the Fear Zone and finds the whole house creepy. She really starts out as a rather immature, bratty character, but you know from the opening of the novel that a teenage girl will be calling the Garda (police in Ireland) to say her life is in danger, so you know something is going to go terribly wrong. The pace starts out slow after this opening hook but eventually picks up later in the novel.

The suspense is in following the action to reach the point where the phone call is made. The main problem is that the whole plot is so terribly predictable. It partially follows a sort of Gothic plot outline, where there are unknown threatening elements, a crumbling ancestral home, a sequestered disfigured owner, a charming relative, and an ominous sense of foreboding danger. It doesn't help that the younger daughter, Julie, is attached to a child-size mannequin, treats it like a real person, and is trying to practice ventriloquism with her. Victor seems smarmy and untrustworthy from the start, making you doubt Sophie's intelligence when she responds to his advances. Yes, The Tinderbox is worth reading, but I knew where it was going almost right from the start so there wasn't a whole lot of suspense for me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture

Big Girl, Small Town

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
12/1/20; 320 pages
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen is a unique recommended debut novel - highly recommended for the right readers.

Majella is a 27 year-old woman on the autism spectrum who lives in a small village in Northern Ireland that is still experiencing the effects of the Troubles. Majella keeps a running list of what she likes (a short list) and dislikes (a much longer list). Mostly she dislikes other people. She spends her days taking care of her needy, alcoholic mother, Nuala, and works at Salt and Battered, the local fish and chips shop. She has regular customers who you can mark the time by their appearance and the job is a known routine. We know her father fell into a depression after the death of his brother Bobby and left Majella and Nuala years ago. The novel starts after the death of her grandmother a result of her being beaten in her home.

Big Girl, Small Town follows Majella's daily routine over a week. It is all very routine, mundane, and, well, boring. We hear the same conversations, the same questions repeatedly throughout the novel. The chapters are headed by items off Majella's list. Interspersed into the daily routine are occasional a new occurrence, an emotional memory, or a change in the routine, otherwise it is the same routine and a lot of details about her personally. There is character development, but due to Majella's personality, it feels rather basic. Her life experience is insular, restricted to her routine, enabling her mother's alcoholism, her basic wants, and her list.

Some of the dialogue is written phonetically, which at the beginning can take a while to parse. The flow of the writing feel already has a choppy and awkward feel, so the phonetically written parts don't help. This, added to the monotony of Majella's daily routine and the repetition can make it a struggle to continue to read. I kept at it because there have been so many good things said about this debut novel. I was waiting for the emotional payoff or a big reveal or twist, but the ending, although hopeful, doesn't provide quite what I was hoping to see. Additionally, the lack of closure over several major events in the novel left me disappointed. In the final assessment, I'm recommending the novel based on my experience, but I understand that other readers might connect with it more that I did.

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

To Tell You the Truth

To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan
9/22/20; 352 pages

To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan is a highly recommended twisty mystery.

Lucy Harper is the famous, wildly successful author of novels featuring her beloved character Detective Sargent Eliza Grey. The trouble is, her latest novel doesn't have Eliza in it and her publisher wants it rewritten. Her husband, Dan, an unsuccessful writer, is currently her manager. He is upset at her and the loss of income due to her rewrite, but he is also making important decisions without consulting her. When Dan disappears, it becomes known that Lucy has changed her name and this isn't the first time she's been involved in someone's disappearance. In 1991 when Lucy was nine and her brother Teddy was three, she secretly left the house late at night with Teddy to watch a summer solstice celebration in the woods outside Bristol, England. Something happened that night and Teddy disappeared. The case was never solved. Now, with Dan missing, Lucy's a suspect, but as the novel progresses, Lucy becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator and it also seems there is more going on than we know.

The novel features the current story line with chapters following the events from 1991 interspersed in between them. Both timeline present an interesting story. We also learn that Eliza, Lucy's character in her novels, actually began as her imaginary childhood friend. Dan's actions are also suspect. The plot itself, however, follows a tried and true formula. As I was reading I kept thinking I had recently read several books with the same plot. Macmillan does do a great job presenting the story and upping the suspense, so it is still a formula that works to create an enjoyable mystery. The ending is a bit unexpected and didn't quite work for me.

Lucy clear becomes increasingly an unreliable character. As she begins to talk to her imaginary friend, Eliza, it brings her sanity into question. You know she lied to police about what really happened in 1991, so is she telling the truth now? She is a reticent, odd character who constantly questions her own thoughts and decisions, which in turn makes her more unreliable. Even the people she is talking to as she tries to figure out what happened to Dan cast doubt on her grip with reality/sanity. The layers of duplicity keep piling up as the plot unfolds.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.