Sunday, July 5, 2020

Hare's Fur

Hare's Fur by Trevor Shearston
review copy; 288 pages

Hare's Fur by Trevor Shearston is a very highly recommended, beautifully presented novel and character study.

Russell Bass is a potter and recent widower living on the edge of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in Australia. He lives a mostly solitary life with a few close friends. When he is hiking to  a specific vein of basalt that he uses in one of his glazes to get the hare's fur effect, he sees a new candy wrapper in the forest. Then he hears the voices of children. He ends up discovering and later bringing food to a teen age girl and her two younger siblings. They are living in a nearby cave, hiding from the police and child services. Russell offers them the food and his phone number, should they need more help. Circumstances send the three to his house, living with him, while still hiding from authorities.

Hare's Fur is a wonderful, quiet, tender, and thoughtful novel, both for the writing and the character development. The descriptions are incredible. If you have ever done any pottery you will immediately be taken back to your experiences and understand intimately the descriptions lovingly provided in the narrative. The setting is handled with the same amount of care and attention. Equally compelling are the descriptions of the people and the connections that are slowly built between them. This is a finely crafted novel with prose that serenades the reader while depicting the time, setting, and characters in a quiet, contemplative manner.

With compassion and introspection, Hare's Fur becomes a novel about working through grief and loneliness. It is about having your life's work also be your passion. It is about aging and acceptance. It is about setting mistakes aside, whether in life or pottery. And it is about trusting other people and the fragility of forging a family and pottery. Quite simply, Hare's Fur is a lovely novel. It was the perfect quiet, contemplative novel to read during a very stressful time.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribe Publications.

Irreversible Damage

Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier
Regnery Publishing: 6/30/20
review copy; 276 pages

Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier is a very highly recommended objective, balanced examination and exploration of the current and dramatic increase of the number of teenage girls identifying as transgender. According to the CDC, currently over 2% of high school students, overwhelmingly girls, identify as transgender when historically gender dysphoria (severe discomfort with one's biological sex) was .01% of the population and almost exclusively male. Gender dysphoria usually emerges early in childhood. Today, however there is an overwhelming surge of adolescent girls claiming to have gender dysphoria and are self-identifying as transgender.

Puberty is hard on girls. (I know; I understand.) Adding to the stress of your changing body is the cruelty and criticism girls inflict upon themselves and others. They are in genuine pain. As Shrier points out this transgender movement in young girls is a new social contagion. We know it is a social contagion because it is so statistically new and overwhelmingly high in numbers. Often this is concentrated among a group of peers or around a specific community or school system. Girls are learning about this through school programs, but especially through social media influencers. We all know that social media can make everyone anxious and sad, however, it affects adolescent girls are the hardest. "[A]dolescent girls, who historically faced life’s challenges in pairs and groups, are now more likely to face them alone." These are girls who are isolated from other people and turn overwhelmingly to social media for their support and information. This gives them a community, acceptance, and the opportunity to escape into a victim identity, which gives them support immediately. Being transgender is one of the few you can choose.

When talking to a counselor or therapist, the young girls often are encourage to quickly start puberty blockers, or testosterone, and look toward top surgery (double mastectomy), all of which inflict irreversible damage on their bodies. It seems appropriate (to me) to have a requirement that young people wait until their brains mature before being encouraged to make such life changing decisions. "The prefrontal cortex, believed to hold the seat of self-regulation, typically does not complete development until age 25." Certainly you can live as a man and later, after age 25-28 once your brain has reached maturity, you can look into hormones or surgery. Shrier makes a good point that this transgender craze may partially be the result of over-parented kids desperate to stake out territory for rebellion.

"According to Dr. Zucker, the mere fact that patients may have fixated on gender as a source of their problems does not mean that that they are right or that transitioning will alleviate their distress. "I said to this kid, ‘I don’t care if you have a male brain or a female brain. This is how you’re feeling currently and we need to figure out why you’re feeling this way and what is the best way to help you lose this dysphoria.’ " It is worth asking whether a standard guided less by biology than by political correctness is in the best interest of patients. Allow their brains to mature, pass the age of rebellion, before making life changing decisions that will affect their health. "Teens and tweens today are everywhere pressed to locate themselves on a gender spectrum and within a sexuality taxonomy - long before they have finished the sexual development that would otherwise guide discovery of who they are or what they desire."

Shrier talked to trans people, parents, influencers, doctors, academics, and professionals on both sides of the issue in this informative, well written and presented examination of this current trend. This is not a transphobic book, unless information is something to be feared. She ended the book with seven rules that were wonderful for reasons beyond the topic at hand: 1. Don’t Get Your Kid a Smartphone 2. Don’t Relinquish Your Authority as the Parent 3. Don’t Support Gender Ideology in Your Child’s Education 4. Reintroduce Privacy into the Home - Quit the habit of sharing every part of your lives (and theirs) on the internet. 5. Consider Big Steps to Separate Your Daughter from Harm 6. Stop Pathologizing Girlhood 7. Don’t be Afraid to Admit: It’s Wonderful to Be a Girl.

I totally agree with this closing remark from Shrier because it seems that being female has lost favor with the broader culture and there is a war against it: "But for Pete’s sake, whatever type of women young girls become, they should all listen to feminists of a prior era and stop taking sex stereotypes seriously. A young woman can be an astronaut or a nurse; a girl can play with trucks or with dolls. And she may find herself attracted to men or to other women. None of that makes her any less of a girl or any less suited to womanhood."

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Finders

The Finders by Jeffrey B. Burton
Macmillian Publishing: 6/30/20
review copy; 288 pages

The Finders by Jeffrey B. Burton  is a highly recommended start to a new mystery series featuring Vira, a cadaver dog, and Mason Reid, her handler.

Mason "Mace" Reid lives on the outskirts of Chicago and loves dogs. He specializes in human remains detection (HRD) and he trains dogs to hunt for the dead, cadaver dogs, as well as other searches. Reid takes on a new, young golden retriever, who he names Elvira, Vira for short, and begins to train Vira as a cadaver dog. She picks up commands and learns her training very quickly. When he takes her out on her first case, she not only finds the body, she also picks out and maims the killer among the bystanders. It seems Vira has a special ability. Vira also has a connection to Chicago Police Officer Kippy Gimm who rescued her as a puppy. Now Mace, Vira, and Kippy must all work together to thwart a killer who has his sights on Mace.

First, people who love dogs and mysteries are going to appreciate this start to a new series. Mace is a well-developed, likeable character who is presented with a nice balance of analytical abilities, serious action, and even a good dose of self-deprecating humor. You will root for him, his dogs, and for Kippy Gimm. They are all believable characters. The dogs - Vira, Sue, the German Shepard, and collies Maggie May and Delta Dawn - are all characters too and you'll see their individual personalities. You will need to suspend some disbelief about Vira's special abilities, but those who have dogs know that sometimes they seem to know more than you realize. (They can also sometimes "clean" the litterbox, but I'm assuming Mace's dogs are all smarter than mine.)

The writing is great in this compelling, well-paced novel. The short chapters keep the action moving along and the clever twists in the plot grab your attention. The chapters alternate between the point of view of Mace and that of a intelligent killer, a sociopath who now has his sights set on Mace and his dogs. These two alternate, dueling narratives help keep the tensions high, with some humorous relief every now and then. The Finders is a perfect, comfortable summer read, with enough tension and excitement to keep your interest. This is a great start to a new series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.

Love & Other Crimes

Love & Other Crimes: Stories by Sara Paretsky
HarperCollins: 6/30/20
review copy; 448 pages

Love & Other Crimes: Stories by Sara Paretsky is a highly recommended collection of fourteen short stories written from 1996 to 2018.

Paretsky, a master of crime novels featuring compelling plots and nail-biting suspense, showcases her talent for short stories in this collection. One story is a new V.I. story while the rest have been previously published other places. About half are V.I. Warshawski stories. All of the stories feature people who kill for love, many of them for family. 

The collection includes: Love & Other Crimes; Miss Bianca; Is It Justice?; Flash Point; Acid Test; Safety First; Trial by Fire; Murder at the Century of Progress; The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer; Wildcat; Death on the Edge; Photo Finish; Publicity Stunts; and Heartbreak House. Of all the stories, Miss Bianca, featuring a ten-year-old girl who loves a laboratory mouse, was my favorite. Two stories reflect the crime fiction of the late-Victorian and early-twentieth-century eras: "Murder at the Century of Progress" and "The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Dark August

Dark August by Katie Tallo
HarperCollins: 6/30/20
review copy; 448 pages

Dark August by Katie Tallo is a highly recommended mystery following a young woman following the leads from the last case her mother was investigating before her death.

Augusta (Gus) Monet learns that her great grandmother, her last living relative, has just died and that she has inherited the house in Ottawa, Canada. She also inherited Levi, the dog she brought with her to her great grandmother's house as a puppy after her police detective mother died. Then Gus was sent off to boarding school and has had no contact with her last living relative. Once in the house, she discovers in her childhood trunk, hidden among her toys and belongings, some information her mother hid from the last cold case she was investigating - the case that may have led to her death. Gus decides to continue her mother's investigation. The cold case is convoluted and involved, but Gus is determined to delve into the information and notes to try to uncover what her mother saw. What she doesn't expect to do is to stir-up the evil that lurked in the past and may have led to her mother's death.

Gus is a well-developed character who has had a tragic past. As the novel continues and the plot begins to unfold, we can see new faucets to Gus's personality that weren't present in many of the opening pages. Her intelligence and tenacity is perhaps genetic, as she becomes increasingly committed to solving her mother's last cold case. And there are so many questions about so many different aspects of the case and her mother's investigation.

The narrative starts out slow and really doesn't start to grab your attention until the story is well underway. I was going to stop reading it, but fortunately, I forced myself to keep reading and the novel quickly turned into a page-turning twisty mystery full of complicated connections. You have to get past the toxic blast due to fracking that has a town being completely blown up in the past and keep going. (I petulantly said aloud to myself and a few pets in the room at this juncture, "I don't want to read a novel about fracking.") The pieces will slowly start to come together as they lead to new clues and different questions to ask. This is a novel that becomes better and better with each page after you get through the slower opening. Stick with this one and you will be rewarded. The ending totally surprised me. This is a promising debut novel by Tallo.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Where the Road Bends

Where the Road Bends by David Rawlings
Thomas Nelson: 6/2/20
review copy; 304 pages

Where the Road Bends by David Rawlings is a recommended allegorical novel featuring a reunion of four college friends. This is highly recommended and a good choice if you like fiction that follows a spiritual journey of self-discovery.

Four college friends promised after graduation to meet and have a fifteenth reunion. The four are keeping their promise and meeting to take a trip to the Australian Outback. "Eliza needs to disconnect from her high-powered fashion job to consider the CEO position she’s just been offered. Lincoln hopes to rekindle a past relationship and escape from another one. Bree looks forward to a fun get away from home and her deeply buried disappointments. Andy wants to disappear from the mess he’s made of his life - possibly forever."

Once they are out at their campsite in the middle of nowhere, one of their guides, Eddie, asks them all the same questions: Tell me your story? Do you enjoy it? He then makes it clear to them that they are replying with what they do, their job, rather than about themselves personally and their lives. This sets the tone for the true purpose of this novel: a parable or allegory of their inner spiritual journey which will take place after a bizarre storm sweeps through their camp and sets them all on their journey, which will include an individual guide to help direct them in their search for their camp and for meaning, purpose, healing, courage, and redemption in their lives.

I appreciate the vivid descriptions of the breathtaking beauty of the Australian Outback and the care taken to set the story in a specific place where the survival tasks are real and work in juxtaposition with the guides who help them find their way back to camp and their true purpose in life. The focus of the plot is a spiritual journey of self-discovery for each individual character, thus it is an allegorical novel.

The characters present a bit of a challenge, however, as they are more caricatures representing different struggles people may have in their lives. So, while there is some character development, the characters all actually represent a struggle people have rather than a well-developed individual. Additionally there seems to be no reason for these four people to really have this reunion after fifteen years. Eliza and Bree have stayed in touch, but the whole group hasn't. (3.5 for me.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Swap

The Swap by Robyn Harding
Gallery/Scout Press: 6/23/20
review copy; 336 pages

The Swap by Robyn Harding is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Low Morrison is a teen who doesn't fit in with her peers on Hawking, an island in the Pacific Northwest, so when she sees a glamorous woman, Freya, put up an ad for pottery classes, she signs up. Low is immediately captivated by Freya and is entranced by everything about her. Freya basks in Low's adoration and shares all sorts of personal information with her while calling Low her best friend. Freya and her husband, Max, who used to be a professional hockey player, moved to the island to get away from a scandal that ruined Max’s career and Freya’s status as a social media influencer. Low is thrilled to be Freya's friend, so when Freya meets and becomes good friends with Jamie, a woman who recently moved to the island with Brian, her husband, Low feels betrayed and threatened. But Freya dumps Low for Jamie and then proceeds to use her friendship with Jamie to manipulate her and Brian into a partner swapping night. Unfortunately, Low was watching the house and saw what was happening.

The narrative is told through the point-of-view of Low, Jamie, Max, and Brian. It will be clear to the reader that Freya has a toxic, manipulative personality and uses those around her for her benefit. We don't have insight into Freya's mindset, but we know enough about her background to have some real suspicions about what is really going on. Low is the most developed of the characters, followed by Jamie. Following the point-of-view of everyone but Freya worked quite well in this novel. We know why the other characters fell under her spell and we can watch her manipulate everyone.

The plot, in spite of some involuntary eye-rolling, was also strangely addictive. The schemes, lies, betrayals, secrets, and drama pulled me in and immersed me into this psychological thriller. This is truly a tale of two sociopaths, circling each other like black holes while using everyone around them. No character is likeable, except, maybe Jamie, but maybe not...  Actually, I feel a little guilty and dirty for reading The Swap

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

Love

Love by Roddy Doyle
Penguin Random House: 6/23/20
review copy; 336 pages

Love by Roddy Doyle is a highly recommended novel about the friendship of two aging males during an evening of drinking and storytelling.

Davy and Joe were drinking pals back in their Dublin youth. Their friendship has continued, albeit only for a pint or two when Davy comes over from England to visit his elderly father. This novel covers an unusual night when the two engage in a real bender in several different pubs. Joe is telling the story about leaving his wife for a woman they both knew four decades before. Their memory of events involving this woman years earlier differs, but the two keep talking and drinking. At the end of the night you discover the reason Davy needs the connection with his friend.

The plot consists of two men talking and drinking over a long night. The novel is narrated by Davy so interspersed in the dialogue between the two men is some inner contemplation by Davy over events in his life which lead up to the emotional climax.  The novel does not feature fast-paced action or shocking revelations, but rather it follows the deliberate, steady pace of a conversation between two long-time friends. Love is a novel of male friendship, aging, guilt, and the ineffectiveness of language to explain affairs of the heart.

The dialogue, which goes round and round, can be tiresome and the lack of punctuation marks may put some readers off. Davy listens to Joe and provokes him. At time they both seem to dislike each other and then work back to their friendship. There is also humor in the novel, found in the dialogue between the two. This is one of those novels that readers will either appreciate or tire of due to the lack of a plot. Those who press on through the endless pints and discussion will find a satisfying ending.

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

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Girl from Widow Hills

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda
Simon & Schuster: 6/23/20
review copy; 336 pages

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda is a very highly recommended, outstanding novel of psychological suspense. This one is a winner!

Everyone knows the story of "the girl from Widow Hills." Arden Maynor was six years old when she became that girl, the girl from Widow Hills, Kentucky, the one who made national news during the search for her and her rescue. Arden was swept away into the storm drains when she was sleepwalking during a storm. The search lasted three days. Against all odds, she was found, alive, clinging to a storm drain. Fame and media attention followed. Everyone was focused on her, including fans and stalkers. Her mother wrote a book about the incident. Every year, when the anniversary date came up, the fervor began again. Her mother benefited financially from the interest and took advantage of it. As soon as she could, Arden legally changed her name to Olivia (Liv) Meyer so she could escape the public attention and live a private life.

Now she lives in Central Valley, N.C. and has a good job as a hospital administrator, but the twentieth anniversary of her rescue is approaching, which means the media will renew their interest in Arden. Her estranged mother passed away six months earlier, so they won't be able to contact her for an interview. Even though she feels like she has hidden her past, Olivia begins to feel like she's being watched and when a stranger approaches her outside the store, she starts to become alarmed. Then one night she is jolted away by a ringing phone. She discovers she is outside, and stumbles over a dead body. She doesn't remember killing the man and has no idea who he was - until his name is revealed to her by the police. The man was involved with her rescue when she was six. Who killed him? How did he find her?

Olivia is a well-developed character. You will want to support her and hope for the best. She is an unreliable narrator, as she admits to the reader to not remembering what happened the night the body was found and she had been sleepwalking a night before. The thing is, you will be on her side. You'll be rooting for her, hoping for the best, wanting to assist her in finding out what really happened. You might even tell her aloud to be more suspicious of that person, or to be cautious there, Olivia.

The plot of The Girl from Widow Hills immediately grabbed my attention. This is a well-written, excellent, well-paced whodunit. I was totally engrossed in this first-rate novel of psychological suspense from beginning to end. The tension keeps mounting incrementally as Olivia is investigated, and begins to investigate on her own. Olivia narrates the novel, but Miranda cleverly uses media transcripts, newspaper reports, book excerpts, and voicemails from the past up to the present to add a depth to the narrative. I smugly thought I had everything figured out several times, but then was blown out of the water by the twisty, shocking ending. Well done, Megan Miranda! Miranda is fast becoming one of my favorite go-to novelists for a guaranteed winner.

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

You Can Go Home Now

You Can Go Home Now by Michael Elias
HarperCollins: 6/23/20
review copy; 272 pages


You Can Go Home Now by Michael Elias is a so-so violent, dark, gritty procedural.

Nina Karim is a detective who has a series of cold case homicides on her desk and only anger and revenge in her heart. The cold cases all involve men who were killed when their widows were living in Artemis, a battered women's shelter. Nina decides to go undercover and enters Artemis, searching for any connection to the cold case murders. Nina is doing her job, but her real and only true goal as a police officer is to find sniper who killed her father when she was a teen in 1999 and take out her wrath and find revenge on him. Her father was a doctor at an abortion clinic and was targeted by a group that called itself the Army of God.
 
This isn't probably a great time to have a book out where a police officer is only full of anger and the drive to take revenge on someone no matter the cost. Especially the fact that she says she only joined the force to extract punishment and revenge. Nina is a mess. She's unlikable, unethical, and seems to be missing a few vital brain cells. Her boyfriend is an unbelievable character.  I didn't care for the connection to a shelter for abused women. I didn't like the exception, the pass Nina is given for working in a gray ethical arena just because her personal vendetta is just and ended up feeling like I was being pandered to as a woman. Oh please. 
 
You Can Go Home Now is a hot mess. Everything seemed way-too-coincidental and the narrative jumped around too much. It was a struggle to finish reading and I kept telling myself to make it a DNF and go on to better things. Two stars because I managed to finish it.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Gone in Seconds

Gone in Seconds by Ed James
Bookouture; 6/12/20

review copy; 356 pages
Max Carter series #2

Gone in Seconds by Ed James is a recommended suspense novel and the second in the FBI Agent Max Carter series.

Wealthy couple and new philanthropists Landon and Jennifer Bartlett are out at a benefit when their five week old son, Ky, is stolen from his crib. The couple is beside themselves, so perhaps the fight between Landon and his brother Chase is understandable, or is it? FBI Agent Max Carter investigates child abduction cases and he is called in to find young Ky, but the case seems to have more angles than is obvious at the start. There may be some kind of tie to the Russian mafia, and could the brother's dubious business deals somehow be connected to the kidnapping.

Readers will know right from the start that a young woman named Kaitlyn has kidnapped Ky, although we don't know why. She seems to care for the baby, but she seemingly has little planned as far as her escape beyond the kidnapping. We don't know the why until later in the novel and then it makes some sense. She also has some mysterious helper assisting her in her escape.
 
The story will hold your attention, especially as you will want to know why the baby was taken and also some explanation for everything that is going on in the novel. There is a lot more going on than just a kidnapping. This is also a definite second in a series and James does little to assist a new reader jumping into the series at book two. Jumping into book two will mean you are missing background information and helpful character development. Additionally, Max isn't a very likeable character and I'm thinking book one would likely add some more depth and humanity to his character.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture.

Spring Girls

Spring Girls by Karen Katchur
Thomas & Mercer; 6/16/20

review copy; 316 pages
Northampton County #3


Spring Girls by Karen Katchur is a highly recommended murder mystery/procedural and the third book in the Northampton County series. 

Detective Geena Brassard and her partner, Parker Reed, are on the trail of a serial killer, dubbed the "Spring Strangler," whose victims have been given the moniker the "Spring Girls." The killer's victims are always young women who have been strangled, their bodies are left in a body of water, and it happens in the spring. A new victim has been found in a lake in the Appalachian foothills. Geena knows that there was a first victim, one who survived, but her name was kept secret by her former partner, Albert Eugenis, who has now retired. Geena visits with Albert and learns the woman's name is Janey Montgomery. Janey is very reluctant to help and claims she can't remember much from the attack. Although she knows she has information to help the investigation, she also has the most to lose.

This novel features a fast-moving plot and recurring characters. Character development is nominal, but since this is a third book in the series and I have not read the first two, I'm going to assume more development happens in the first two. The first book in the series is River Bodies and the second Cold Woods. Even though Spring Girls is a third installment, it does work as a standalone, especially if you aren't focused on character development and just want to follow the investigation and the clues provided. For me, both the investigation and final big reveal were predictable and a little disappointing. I was especially disappointed in the ending, which is very similar to another novel I read recently. Setting that aside, the investigation itself and the insights into Janey's life and struggles were compelling and held my interest. This is a good choice for escapism reading or those who enjoyed the first two books in the series. 3.5 rounded up


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Glorious

Glorious by Gregory Benford, Larry Niven
Tom Doherty Associates: 6/16/20
review copy; 400 pages
Bowl of Heaven #3

Glorious by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven is a highly recommended third installment of the hard science fiction Bowl of Heaven series.

"Audacious astronauts encounter bizarre, sometimes deadly life forms, and strange, exotic, cosmic phenomena, including miniature black holes, dense fields of interstellar plasma, powerful gravity-emitters, and spectacularly massive space-based, alien-built labyrinths. Tasked with exploring this brave, new, highly dangerous world, they must also deal with their own personal triumphs and conflicts."

This is the final installment of a hard science fiction space opera series by science fiction masters Benford and Niven. The crew of the Sunseeker was tasked with spreading humanity throughout the galaxy, but they have encountered many extraterrestrial beings along the way and added to their crew. Included in the crew is the husband-and-wife biologist team Cliff Kammash and Beth Marble. The starship is now headed toward their original destination, Glory, a planetary system with a complex artificially engineered orbital system. Benford excels at the real scientific specifics in the narrative while Niven enjoys giving the various aliens a personality. And there are many technical details and many unique aliens. 

Once you start this densely pack story, you will realize that it would behoove you to have read the first two novels in the series first so you know the background and can follow along with the action with a bit more ease.  The first novel is Bowl of Heaven and the second is Shipstar. Catching up with the background I missed slowed my reading down as did the technical details. This is an exciting addition to hard science fiction, but it will take time and concentration to read.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.

The Lightness

The Lightness by Emily Temple
HarperCollins: 6/16/20
review copy; 288 pages

The Lightness by Emily Temple is a recommended meditative novel on dysfunctional adolescent female friendships at a "Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls."

Olivia adored her father so she was heartbroken when he went to a meditation retreat in the mountains, became Buddhist, and left his family. He disappeared from her life, leaving her with her volatile mother. She manages to follow her father's steps, attending the same Buddhist retreat, a high-altitude spiritual retreat known as the Levitation Center, during the summer camp for teen girls. Olivia ends up having a trio of girls who are returning campers led by Serena, with followers Janet and Laurel, befriend her. Serena, who has special privileges, directs the others in questionable and even dangerous activities in the pursuit of enlightenment with the goal of learning to levitate.

This is a dark, moody coming-of-age novel on female friendship, angst, adolescent desires, passions, obsessions and religious zeal. The power teens can have over each other's actions and beliefs is explored. The dense intelligent prose lends a fevered dream-like quality to the narrative. The world created here is insular, and the group of girls seems separate from other, normal societal expectations. The character of Olivia is eventually well-developed, but the journey to get to the answers became tedious at times.

In some ways the denseness of the prose overwhelms the story, leaving the reader to expect much more from the secret hinted at revelations than those that are revealed. There is plenty of foreshadowing that ultimately was a letdown because I had pretty much figured out what was going to happen. In the end this is a story of angsty, hormonal teenage girls who are unreliable narrators searching for power and belonging at a Buddhist camp. I'm not the target audience for this one as I tired of it rather quickly. It could be due to the current tension-filled reality which overshadows most fiction.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

The Last Scoop

The Last Scoop by R. G. Belsky
Oceanview Publishing: 5/5/2020
review copy; 368 pages
Clare Carlson series #3

The Last Scoop by R. G. Belsky is a highly recommended mystery and the third in the Clare Carlson series.

Clare Carlson is the news director of a New York City Channel 10 News. When she learns about the death of her mentor and first newspaper editor Martin Barlow, she is remorseful that she wasn't able to meet with him when he contacted her, telling her that he was working on the biggest story of his career and wanted to share information concerning his investigation. Clare decides to look into the files on the stories he was researching. The first story has ties to the New York District Attorney Terri Hartwell's political aspirations and mob owned property. She also discovers he had evidence about a serial killer he’s dubbed "The Wanderer" who has been killing women for years. Clare takes some risks with her job and her life to break the stories.

The Last Scoop really contains two different stories. They have some ties with each other and are somewhat connected, but are really presented as two different stories rather than connecting stories that Clare is working on simultaneously. And the novel is presented as having multiple parts. I was intrigued at the beginning of the novel and basically enjoyed it to the end, but I did feel that the presentation could have been better. I wanted the story of The Wanderer, and although I can appreciate the first story, my interest in the whole novel would have been higher if everything was tied together more tightly.

Although this is the third book in the series, this is the first novel Clare Carlson novel I have read, so it can be read as a standalone. You would likely get more background details on Clare from the previous novels, but enough information is presented to understand her character. Some readers might be put-off by her disastrous personal life, but it is easy to focus on the information she is uncovering while looking into Barlow's research notes. Clare's inclination seems to be to make poor choices in her personal life.

The writing is good and captures the tone of current journalism in the news business well. Past cases are mentioned, but new readers will be able to follow the story. There was one ending of a story arch I loved. I enjoyed most of the novel except the final denouement of the whole novel which was disappointing to me and a letdown after the fast pace of the narrative up to the end. I did enjoy The Last Scoop and would read the next Clare Carlson novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Oceanview Publishing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Always the Last to Know

Always the Last to Know by Kristan Higgins
Penguin Random House: 6/9/20
review copy; 400 pages

Always the Last to Know by Kristan Higgins is a highly recommended family drama.

Barb Frost, a selectman in the small town of Stonington, Connecticut, is preparing to divorce her husband, John, after fifty years of marriage. She has been unhappy and they have been emotionally miles apart for years. Then John suffers a stroke. Barb and their two daughters rush to the hospital.  Juliet, 42, is a successful architect, married, the mother of two, and Barb's favorite. Younger daughter Sadie, 31, is a struggling artist in NYC and has always been John's favorite daughter. At the hospital Barb learns from messages on his phone that John had a mistress. John is sent home and must have in home care. Sadie moves back to Stonington to help care for him.

The story unfolds through chapters written in the individual points-of-view of Barb, Juliet, Sadie, and brief chapters from John. Everyone in the family is going through an emotional upheaval while caring for John. Barb has felt neglected and ignored for years and those feelings are boiling over. Juliet is stretched thin with her marriage, family, and job. Now she has a young architect that she is mentoring overshadowing her and she is having panic attacks. She spotted her father with his mistress and has kept the secret. Sadie was teaching art while trying to break into the art world, but now she's left her job and boyfriend, moving back to help care for her father because it's obvious her mother and Juliet won't be able to do so. She also is now seemingly seeing her old boyfriend, Noah, at every turn.

There is no doubt that the writing is excellent, especially the character development and dialogue. Higgins also does a wonderful job at creating complex, believable, sympathetic characters. You will swear you know or have met these women. The dialogue is also exceptional and each character has a characteristic, individual voice. Higgins handles the problems each person is going through while integrating it into the plot with skill and finesse. The characters make this novel shine. The plot will hold your attention throughout and you will be anxious to reach the final denouement. John's chapters are especially poignant because he is basically non-verbal and we are just reading his thoughts.

The beginning of Always the Last to Know does start out a little rough and Barb comes off as a cold shrew. There also are a few parts that may make those of us who are occasionally too cynical roll our eyes, and the ending is just too perfectly wrapped up. On the other hand, I was anxious to continue reading Always the Last to Know and discover what happens to each character. It is a feel good story would be an excellent choice for summer reading.

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

Last One to Lie

Last One to Lie by J.M. Winchester
Thomas & Mercer: 6/9/20
review copy; 287 pages

Last One to Lie by J.M. Winchester is a recommended psychological thriller - for romance readers

After her yoga class, Kelsey Jennings goes to pick up her two-year-old daughter, Mikayla, at the child’s day-care center in Ellicott City, Md. Mikayla isn't there, there is no record of her ever being there, and no one knows a child by that name. Kelsey repeatedly calls her husband, Malcolm, but all the calls go to voicemail. Kelsey, obviously, has a complete meltdown at the day care and the police are called. Detective Paul Ryan is assigned her case and begins to investigate. He's certain that something’s up with Kelsey’s story. Along with Mikayla, Malcolm is also missing and Kelsey is suspected of being mentally ill.

All right, the very beginning of this novel will grab your attention and suck you right into the plot - before it gets ludicrous and goes off the rail. During the final scenes when we get the twisty scoop about what is really happening, I immediately recalled inconsistencies from certain parts of the story that were suddenly ridiculous and incompatible based on the new information. Also you could tell that Winchester is a romance writer under another name. The immediate attraction and sex scenes struck me as absurd and were a negative and a huge turn off for me. Why the recommendation? Because it seems that a whole lot of other readers liked it and were probably okay with all the incongruous details as long as they get the steamy, sexy attraction bits and the twisty ending (which has been done before and better.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Distant Dead

The Distant Dead by Heather Young
HarperCollins: 6/9/20
review copy; 352 pages

The Distant Dead by Heather Young is a very highly recommended murder mystery set in a small desert town.

After his mother died, twelve-year-old Sal Prentiss went to live with his uncles on a remote ranch outside of Marzen, Nevada, a very, very small town near Lovelock.  He finds a burned corpse one morning and reports it to Jake Sanchez, at the fire station, the closest thing Marzen has to a police department. Sal tells Jake that he thinks it is his math teacher, Adam Merkel because he recognized his nearby car. Merkel was a math professor at the university in Reno, but he has taken a job in Lovelock as a middle school math teacher. Merkel was a quiet man who connected with one of his students, Sal, and the two shared a trusting, mentoring friendship. His murder shocks the small community and rumors fly.

Nora Wheaton is the middle school’s social studies teacher and she considered Adam Merkel a friend. After college she planned to stay far away from Lovelock, but ended up returning to care for her disabled father after an accident that he survived but her brother didn't. She loves him but she has not forgiven him. After Adam's death, she begins her own investigation. It seems to her that Sal is fearful and hiding something. Nora begins to look for Adam's killer, but she also looks into his past, which contains a tragedy that she understands.

The narrative unfolds through chapters from the individual point-of-view of Sal, Jake, and Nora. After the murder, Sal's story begins in the past before the murder happens and follows his story leading up to the present. Jake and Nora's chapters are both chronicles from the present, while they also reveal their pasts. The characters are dealing with personal struggles and issues that carry over to the present. This truly is a drama worthy of a Greek Tragedy. In this tragedy the Fates are busy weaving a heartbreaking connection in their lives to each other and to all of their stories. The narrative is emotional, intense, heartbreaking, and poignant.

The well-developed characters are depicted as real people - complex, flawed, isolated, resilient, and broken. They are all dealing with various incidents in their pasts that still affect their lives. There is a glimmer of a promise for a future and a hope that forgiveness will bring them some measure of freedom - if they can allow themselves that measure of grace in their fragile lives. They are all faced with choices from which their decisions will resonate onward. You will feel empathy for all of them. Even the dry, sandy, barren landscape becomes a character

The writing is absolutely excellent and I was glued to the pages of this murder mystery and psychological thriller. The suspense is palpable and taut, while the writing is so perfect that the novel feels impossible to put down. This is one of those magic novels that capture both the seemingly impossible current heartbreak in everyone's lives, but also the possibilities for a future, forgiveness, and perhaps even hope.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Monsters We Make

The Monsters We Make by Kali White
Crooked Lane Books: 8/11/20
review copy; 272 pages

The Monsters We Make by Kali White is a recommended family drama set in the 1980's following the disappearances of two paperboys from Des Moines, Iowa.

In 1982 a paperboy goes missing and is never found. Two years later in August 1984, paperboy Christopher Stewart goes missing from his morning paper route. Twelve-year-old Sammy Cox, who has a paper route, runs home, afraid of someone but he is keeping this a secret. His sister Crystal, seventeen, is concerned about the missing boys but also sees it as an opportunity to write a great college entrance essay that could win her a scholarship, so she begins looking into it. Officer Dale Goodkind has just moved to this part of Des Moines and now there is another paperboy who is missing and he is put on this case too. Dale, who is clinically depressed, may not be up to the task.

This novel is fiction, but is based on the real-life Des Moines Register paperboy kidnappings in the early 1980's. The novel follows Dale, Crystal and Sammy as the investigation continues and potential suspects enter the story. As the investigation unfolds through the point-of-view these three characters, you will care about what happens to them, especially Crystal and Sammy. There is some good coverage of what a pedophile/predator says and does to control victims and manipulate them.

Touchstones of the 80's are well-integrated into the narrative setting the time and place of the setting. All the people in the 80s weren't quite as naive or unsuspecting as White depicts, however, especially in a city, which Des Moines is and was back then. Sure, some were, but some were also quite aware of stranger danger. The plot does slow down in the middle and the ending occurs rather abruptly. The novel is also very predictable. Additionally, Officer Goodkind's personal problems and struggles do detract from the story and the investigation.

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

An Elegant Woman

An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee
Simon & Schuster: 6/2/20
eBook review copy; 416 pages

An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee is a highly recommended family drama spanning decades.

Although fictional, this draws form parts of McPhee's own family history while following four generation of women as they determining what they are and what they want. The journey follows the family from Montana to Maine, starting in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two young girls, Tommy and Katherine, travel with their impulsive mother, Glenna Stewart, while heading to a new life. Tommy continues to take care of her sister while Glenna teaches in a one room school house and Katherine goes to school.

The novel opens with Isadora and her sisters going through their grandmother's house in New Jersey to clean things out. In the novel, Isadora is trying to retell her grandmother's life story while trying to understand her own journey. This is a story of a woman's journey as reflected in the stories of women in their past from her family and embellished along the way. Family myths are explored and shared in this novel about heritage and what that means.

The writing is very descriptive and the characters, along with their actions, are complex and complicated. They are all not understandable or likeable, but depicted as if they want the best for their children and future generations. The characters are well-developed. The overwhelming focus is the family stories and the handing off to the next generation.

The writing is good as it captures the historical period the characters are going through and their thoughts and reactions. The question of family legacies and what is passed down to the next generation is clearly part of the plot. The question about what the next generation knows about the past generation and their ancestors and how it all ties together is clearly part of the theme. The question arises what is memory and what is truth when telling a story that will be shared to the next generation.

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

The Oppenheimer Alternative

The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J. Sawyer
CAEZIK; 6/2/20
eBook review copy; 374 pages

The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J. Sawyer is a highly recommended alternate history science fiction novel.

"While J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team struggle to develop the A-bomb, Edward Teller wants something even more devastating: a bomb based on nuclear fusion —the mechanism that powers the sun. Teller’s research leads to a terrifying discovery: by the year 2030, the sun will eject its outermost layer, destroying the entire inner solar system—including Earth. As the war ends with the use of fission bombs against Japan, Oppenheimer's team, plus Albert Einstein and Wernher von Braun, stay together—the greatest scientific geniuses from the last century racing against time to save our future. Meticulously researched and replete with real-life characters and events, The Oppenheimer Alternative is a breathtaking adventure through both real and alternate history."

This is an alternate history of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer from Hugo and Nebula Award–winner science fiction master Robert Sawyer. In this alternate world Oppenheimer has an opportunity to use his genius to save the world. The Sun has an unstable core and scientists need to figure out how to shield the Earth and see if humanity can flee to Mars to find refuge. Sawyer uses plenty of scientific and historical details to support his novel.  The plot itself is well done as everything hinges on decisions and discoveries that are made by the characters. As expected, the quality of the writing is great.

Obviously Oppenheimer is a well-developed character. Sawyer did a lot of research into the person and it shows in his depiction of Oppenheimer. The science is definitely present in the novel.  Although his romances detract a bit form the story, they do add an additional layer to the characterization of the man versus the scientific genius. For history buffs there are a lot of historical rt of the novel where details that enhance the story. The first part of the novel follows history more closely before the second half where Sawyer becomes the "what if" part of the novel where he delves deeper into science fiction.

Sawyer includes a bibliography at the end to direct people who are interested to his research into Oppenheimer's life. This will help those who need it uncover what is fiction and what is fact. For those who know Oppenheimer's story, this is a fascinating take on an alternate history of the life of a fascinating man during an historic time and a supposition of what might have been.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of CAEZIK.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Second Home

The Second Home by Christina Clancy
St. Martin's Publishing Group: 6/2/20
eBook review copy; 352 pages


The Second Home by Christina Clancy is a recommended family drama.

After an incident at their summer home on Cape Cod, the Gordon family was tore apart. Seventeen-year-old Ann Gordon had her life changed forever. The incident led to a schism between her and her sister Poppy and a complete estrangement of their adopted brother Michael from the whole family. Now it is fifteen years later and their parents have suddenly died. Ann is determined to sell the vacation home that leaves her with nothing but bad memories now. She's leaving Poppy out of her decision because she is always traveling and hasn't been back to the States for years. Michael is not looked for or even considered. When Poppy returns and they decide to sell, Michael re-enters their lives. Not only does he have a claim to the house, he also wants to set the record straight and has additional, correct information about what happened years ago.

The narrative is told through the alternating points-of-view of Ann, Poppy, and Michael. The beginning focuses on the summer that changed everything and their actions and reactions. The devastating event that sets into motion a change of events that change everyone's lives, but at its core it isn't entirely credible. The event happened in 1999 and something could have been said; it wouldn't have been unbelievable. Then, I just couldn't accept the premise of what happened to Michael. No spoilers, but you have to believe all of that is credible for the rest of the novel to be believable - and there are additional parts of the plot that are implausible. You have to firmly set your disbelief and misgivings aside, in a dark, dim corner, to finish the novel. Adding to the problem is that you are likely not going to relate to or like any of the characters.

What is believable are the descriptions of the Cape and their summer home. Since The Second Home is clearly written as a summer beach read (if that can happen) many readers will be able to overlook the gasping problems in the plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillan.

The End of the Day

The End of the Day by Bill Clegg
Gallery/Scout Press: 9/29/20
eBook review copy; 320 pages

The End of the Day by Bill Clegg is a highly recommended domestic drama wrapped around a mystery.

Rotating chapters from the past and present tell the story of multiple characters, Dana, Jackie, Lupita, Alice, and Hap, which, when followed, explain the whole story and a mystery some didn't even know existed. Dana Goss, heir of her wealthy family's Connecticut estate, Edgeweather, is beginning to show the onset of Alzheimer’s. She has her driver take from NYC to the home of her childhood best friend, Jackie, who after fifty years of silence still won't even open the door to see Dana. Dana leaves Jackie a briefcase stuffed full of papers and then goes to Edgewater for the first time in thirty years. Lupita, currently living in Hawaii and running a taxi company, is the daughter of the former maid and caretaker for the Goss family. She is around the same age as Dana and Jackie. Alice, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the aunt, benefactor, and friend of Dana Goss. Alice's son and wife just had a baby - and have both disappeared, leaving the infant with her. Hap is the son of Alice who finds his father collapsed at a hotel and is now sitting at his deathbed instead of helping his wife with their newborn. 

Chapters are told from the past and present, rotating through parts of each character's story until all the connections are made between the past and the present. Dana is the only character who knows all the connections - for now. The long-hidden secrets will reveal how the choices we make will become our legacy in the future and how those secrets will continue to affect the lives of everyone involved. This is truly a novel about the "complicated bonds and breaking points of friendship, the corrosive forces of secrets, the heartbeat of longing, and the redemption found in forgiveness."

The End of the Day is a beautifully written character driven novel. This is really more of a character study involving multiple characters, as well as a slow meandering path to the connections their intertwined lives established between them. The prose is melancholic, atmospheric, full of keen observations as Clegg slowly gives us more clues to the past, the choices that were made, and the secret history that connect the characters. I did feel that the writing was stronger in the first part of the novel and the characters melancholy and despair make it difficult to relate to them or deeply care about them.

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

The Last Flight

The Last Flight by Julie Clark
Sourcebooks: 6/23/20
eBook review copy; 320 pages

The Last Flight by Julie Clark is a highly recommended novel of suspense.

Claire Cook is married to a powerful man whose family is part of a political dynasty. From the outside she is living a life of wealth and privilege, but away from the public view her husband is a controlling man with a violent temper. She has the bruises, physical and mental, to prove his abuse. He or his staff control her every move. Claire has been working for months on a plan to escape and the end is in sight when her husband suddenly changes her agenda. She is now going to meet with a humanitarian group in Puerto Rico. Sitting at the airport waiting to board her flight, she knows this change means he will now discover her escape plan and make her pay for it.

Eva James meets Claire at an airport bar at JFK before their flights. Eva tells Claire that she is mourning her late husband and heading home to Berkeley, California. Neither woman wants to board her flight and they make the last minute decision to switch tickets. They both feel this will give them lead time in starting over in a new life. Unknown to Claire, Eva had her own secrets from which she needed to escape so switching identities will help both women. When the flight to Puerto Rico goes down, Claire realizes that she can start a new life and assume Eva's identity.

The story alternates between the point-of-view of both Claire and Eva. After the Puerto Rico flight, Eva's story starts 6 months before the ticket swap and explains why she really wants to escape to a new life. Claire's narrative follows her as she assumes Eva's identity and tries to start her new life. Both narratives are equally compelling and interesting and both women are well-developed, complicated, realistic characters. You will be invested in the story of both women and they will capture your empathy as you follow their separate stories and timelines.

There are twists and surprises along the way that I don't want to spoil. There were a few parts that required me to suspend any disbelief, but it was worth it. What you need to know is that the writing is excellent, the tension is palpable, and the pace is fast - all of which point to a high recommendation to read The Last Flight.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.