Sunday, March 29, 2020

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Penguin Random House; 4/7/20
review copy; 192 pages


Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler is a very highly recommended, compassionate novel about misconception and the importance of relationships. This may be my new favorite Anne Tyler novel.

Micah Mortimer, 44, is a creature of habit who has his whole life carefully organized. He is superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building and self-employed in his business called Tech Hermit. Micah has a schedule he follows for every day and week. He is comfortable with his quiet, defined life, so it comes as quite a shock when his careful routines are challenged. First Cassia (Cass) Slade, his woman friend, is worried that she is facing eviction and will have nowhere to live. Then 18-year-old Brink, the son of an old college girlfriend, shows up and asks if Micah is his father (he's not). In a mishap of epic proportions, Micah allows Brink to stay overnight in his spare room, which results in Cass breaking up with him. This incident leaves Micah to reexamine his life, his routines, his interpersonal connections, and his choices.

I love everything about Redhead by the Side of the Road - the writing, Micah, the story, the ending, the meaning of the title - everything. The writing is absolutely exceptional. This is a character study of a man and the character of Micah is perfectly captured and described. I was instantly empathetic to Micah's plight and his caution in approaching life. I felt such compassion and sympathy for Micah when the misunderstandings and sudden upheaval in his routine caused the introspection and self-examination on his approach to life and relationships.

The novel is short, but tender and poignant. We all deserve second chances and Tyler flawlessly captures this realization and desire in Micah. It ends on a perfectly hopeful note. As I said, this may be my new favorite Anne Tyler Novel. Certainly this is one of the best novels I've read this year.

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

Roanoke Ridge

Roanoke Ridge by J.J. Dupuis
Dundurn Press; 3/7/20
review copy; 224 pages
A Creature X Mystery #1


Roanoke Ridge by J.J. Dupuis is a recommended mystery and the first book in the start of a new series.

Laura Reagan is the owner of a popular website called Science Is Awesome. Science IA strives to cover news worthy science topics with reality and facts, including cryptozoological investigations. This is in contrast to Laura's upbringing by her father who famously filmed a distant shot of a Sasquatch and child in the woods at Roanoke Ridge, Oregon. Now Laura's mentor, relative, and Bigfoot researcher Professor Berton Sorel has gone missing right as the annual Roanoke Valley Bigfoot Festival is about to start. Laura and her friend Saad Javed (who knows the difference between hard science and pseudoscience) are going to Roanoke Ridge to help search for Professor Sorel and maybe uncover the facts behind the recent Bigfoot sightings. When the search and rescue operation results in the body of a notorious Bigfoot hoaxer being found, and not the Professor's, the investigation expands.

The mystery is straightforward so don't expect heart-stopping action or a tension filled plot. The pace is slow and sometimes meandering, but the book is short so it is a quick read. While there are sentences and descriptions that shine, other parts of the narrative are pedestrian, which left me feeling that the writing in Roanoke Ridge is competent, but not exceptional. Be prepared for several long lectures included in the novel, some of which may be insulting to readers. Those lectures actually are a big impairment to the narrative. Chapters open with quotes over the years from various sources about Bigfoot or Sasquatch sightings, which add an interesting touch. The ending does feel rushed.

Admittedly any mystery involving Bigfoot would immediately draw my attention if simply for the novelty and kitsch factor. The idea of this being part of a series of creature mysteries is intriguing, but I'm uncertain if I will read another novel in the series. Laura is the only character who receives sufficient development but I'm not sure she is appealing enough to carry a whole series. The other characters are all caricatures representing different stereotypical types of people. Laura simply wasn't an interesting or appealing enough character to subject myself to wading through more thought lectures embedded in the plot, however reading another book in the series might be based more on what creature is sought. 
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Dundurn Press.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Familiar Dark

The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
Penguin Random House; 3/31/20
review copy; 256 pages 


The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel is a very highly recommended thriller about a mother's quest for justice - or revenge - after her daughter is murdered.

Twelve-year-old best friends Izzy Logan and Junie Taggert are both murdered on playground in Barren Springs, a impoverished small town located in the Missouri Ozarks. Eve Taggert, Junie's single mother, is inconsolable and enraged that anyone would harm her beloved daughter. Eve is determined to find out who did it and extract justice for her daughter, and after growing up with her mother, she has the life lessons to do so. Eve and her brother Cal, who is now a police officer, grew up in a trailer way back in a holler, with a tough, volatile, hard-edged, drug-addicted mother who ran a meth house. Her mother's lessons were cruel, but instilled toughness, fierce loyalty for family, and an eye-for-an-eye outlook - something Eve might need even though she hasn't talked to her mother for years.

Engel brings it all together in this memorable, well-written, dark thriller. The Familiar Dark has everything you want in a great novel. The story is heart-wrenching and dark while the plot grabs your attention and holds it fast. The murder is just in the first chapter, and then it is Eve's story. It's a slow-burner that builds on facts and observations. Eve's revelations about her past and her search for the killer are riveting. Eve's grief is raw and realistic.

Eve is a well-developed character set in an unimaginable situation where she needs to figure out how she is going to respond. This is a great character study of a mother at her most elemental core. It is understandable decision that she eventually turns to what she was taught as a child at the hands of her mother, that no one takes what is yours. Even when Cal insists that she needs to leave the investigation to the professionals, she can't and won't stop her search for Junie's killer because she knows it is someone local.

The writing is stark and descriptive, capturing both Eve's character and the setting. As a mother, I understood Eve's deep grief and desire for vengeance. As a woman, I understood, the lesson her mother felt kids, especially Eve, needed - toughen up or you're going to get hurt. You will not be able to set this novel down. The ending was a shocking surprise.

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


Let the Willows Weep

Let the Willows Weep by Sherry Parnell
Sherry Parnell: 10/29/19
eBook review copy; 270 pages


Let the Willows Weep by Sherry Parnell is a very highly recommended, beautifully written, heartbreaking novel written in the tradition of rural Southern fiction.

"Sometimes life is just like paper wings. Fragile, easily torn apart, and often there are too many pieces to pick up."

Birddog Harlin lives in the rural South by a small town with her parents and two brothers. Her father makes a hardscrabble existence by working in a coal mine while her mother is ever full of disappointment and bitterness over their poverty. Denny, her older brother is her idol and protector. Caul, the brother closest to her in age, is her tormentor. She is her verbally abusive mother's greatest disappointment. But Birddog (a nickname given to her by Denny) is her daddy's girl, and her father loves and cherishes her. After her father dies in a cave-in, the dysfunctional family spirals into self-destruction.

The opening chapter and the concluding chapter are set in the future, through the eyes of Birddog's daughter. After the opening where the mother is harsh to her daughter, then we jump back in time to Birddog's childhood, and her mother treating her even worse. Truly, children learn to parent from their parents, good or bad. This is Birddog's story. Although a time period is not mentioned, I found it relatively easy to place it during a basic time in history based on the story. (There were many period clues, for example segregated housing, the  brothers leaving school to work, girls wore dresses all the time, etc..)

Let the Willows Weep is an excellent novel. Parnell's writing is simple gorgeous, descriptive, poetic, and sublime. Even while describing difficult, hurtful, abusive situations, the sentences are perfectly crafted and the reflections are unflinchingly told. Birddog is a memorable, very well-developed character. This novel is through her point-of-view, and her self-examination about her mother and her resulting attitude. Additionally, Let the Willows Weep is an emotional novel and I teared up, or cried during scenes throughout the novel. Yes, it explores the line between destruction and redemption, but the journey covers a myriad of emotions that exist between those two points. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sherry Parnell.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Last Odyssey

The Last Odyssey by James Rollins
HarperCollins: 3/24/20
review copy; 448 pages
Sigma Force Series #15

 
The Last Odyssey by James Rollins is a very highly recommended thriller combining "cutting-edge science, historical mystery, mythology, and pulse-pounding action."It is always a celebration when Rollins releases a new novel!

In Greenland, researchers find a medieval ship trapped in the ice whose hold contains Bronze Age artifacts. A clockwork gold atlas embedded with an intricate silver astrolabe is found inside the captain's cabin, along with the remains of the captain. The intricate clockwork treasure was crafted by a group of Muslim inventor the Banū Mūsā brothers whose work later inspired Leonardo Da Vinci. When activated, "the moving map traces the path of Odysseus’s famous ship as it sailed away from Troy. But the route detours as the map opens to reveal a fiery river leading to a hidden realm underneath the Mediterranean Sea. It is the subterranean world of Tartarus, the Greek name for Hell. In mythology, Tartarus was where the wicked were punished and the monstrous Titans of old, imprisoned."

There are other, frightening inventions/protectors set in place on the ship and they are released by the discovery. The research group is attacked by a modern group related to the Banū Mūsā brothers and hostages are taken. When news of the attack on the researchers and their discovery reaches Sigma Force, they are called to help. They must now protect the world by figuring out how to follow the path laid out by Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Those who love mythology can rejoice as that knowledge will pay off and make following the action easier because you'll know what they need to search for along the path of Odysseus. Again, just like previous Sigma Force novels, The Last Odyssey is another exciting addition to the series. Rollins always delivers pulse-pounding, nail-biting action and bases his story on historical facts and current scientific research resulting in a great mix of action, history, and science. The story itself is full of twists and surprise along with the trade-mark action you expect. As usual, do not skip Rollins author's notes at the end about his research for the novel. I've said it before, and I'm going to repeat myself here, but I appreciate the fact that Rollins treats his readers with respect and a nod to their intelligence and ability to comprehend a complex plot.

We know all the Sigma Force characters and Rollins adds some new, interesting characters to the mix. I think you can read this as a standalone novel, but having read all the Sigma Force novels I might not be the best judge of that. I do think that there is enough background information provided for the characters that a new reader could enjoy the novel. And everyone will be reading this for the non-stop action, twists, and surprises along the way. If you love action/adventure thrillers and have never read a Rollins novel, now would be a great time to start working your way through all of his novels.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Last Tourist

The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
Macmillian: 3/24/20
review copy; 384 pages
Milo Weaver Series #4


The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer is a highly recommended, complex espionage thriller and the fourth novel featuring Milo Weaver.

It is a decade since ex-CIA agent Milo Weaver thought the corps of CIA-trained assassins called "Tourists" had finally ended.  Milo is the head of the Library, a secret espionage operation buried within the UN’s bureaucracy. He has his own concerns with the Library, but a series of violent assaults point to a group of assassins back at work and they seem to be operating outside the reach of any country's control.  Milo is driven into hiding in the Western Sahara when a young inexperienced CIA analyst arrives to question him, which results in both of them running for their lives.

This is a tension pack, complex novel set in the underworld of espionage, with danger at every turn as both sides engage maneuvers, parries, deflections, and double-crossing. It is a demanding plot that does require you to pay close attention as you read to characters, the backstories, their actions and loyalties. Everyone is suspect. Everyone has their own agenda. It must be noted that this novel is not a mindless way to pass the time. You are going to have to actively follow the myriad of characters and the complicated plot.

I have not read the previous Milo Weaver novels. It may have helped me with some of the backstory if I had, but I did manage to follow what was happening and unpack the history. Of course, you'll have to pick all of this up while you are racing along with the breakneck pace and trying to tamp down your level of tension as the plot threads unfold. It's a wild, convoluted ride with a plot that contains layers upon layers of information. Milo Weaver is a great character and surviving depends upon his acumen and intelligence.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.

Too Close to Home

Too Close to Home by Andrew Grant
Penguin Random House: 1/7/20
hardcover: 336 pages
Paul McGrath #2 


Too Close to Home by Andrew Grant is a highly recommended investigative novel of suspense. This is the second book in the Paul McGrath series, but can be read as a stand-alone novel.

Paul McGrath is a former intelligence agent who is currently working as a courthouse janitor. He is doing this, working undercover, in order to find who took a file that had missing evidence about Alex Pardew.  Pardew is the man who defrauded and likely murdered McGrath’s father but he avoided conviction because the file was missing. McGrath discovers one person who had their hands on the file, but he needs to dig deeper and find out why and who else is involved.

While running his secret investigation in the courthouse, he encounters Len Hendrie, a man who is charged with arson. Hendrie admits he is guilty, but he did it because a venture capitalist he shared some inside information with, took the information and ruined Hendrie in a short-selling scheme. Hendrie wants to defend himself in court so he can tell the world why he burned down the one home owned by the man. McGrath decides to help Hendrie and investigate this too.

The complex plot moves quickly between the major plot thread and the minor plot involving Hendrie. There is a surprising twist at the end that I certainly didn't see coming. I haven't read the first novel, but felt that Too Close to Home can be read as a stand-alone novel. Grant provides enough background information to follow what happened in the first book and why he is looking into the file and the missing information. He also explains any information you need to understand the short-selling scheme in the subplot.

It's a smart move having McGrath work as a janitor. Much like any other person in retail or a service job wearing a uniform, they all certainly are an invisible person to many or looked down on as less intelligent. It's also nice to have McGrath like his job as cleaning is relaxing and helps him think. He's an interesting character, taciturn, but friendly to people to elicit information in a less than obvious way. He's helped by his friend Robson, who lives with him, and a few other contacts he has made over the years. I could see having McGrath pick up more cases in the future through his janitorial job.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Boy from the Woods

The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben
Grand Central Publishing: 3/17/20
review copy; 384 pages 

 
The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben is a very highly recommended thriller with an unconventional investigator named Wilde.

Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a six to eight year-old boy living feral in the woods near Westville, N.J. He had no memory of his past and still doesn't know where he came from. He uses his exceptional detective skills and insight working as a private investigator with his foster sister - when he wants to. When Hester Crimstein, a well-known attorney with a television show, is asked by her grandson Matthew to look into the disappearance of a classmate, Naomi Pine, Hester immediately talks to Wilde. Wilde has a connection to her family and Matthew is his godson.
 
Wilde uses his unique skills to find Naomi the first time she disappears. When she disappears a second time, it seems that there is more going on under the surface in the community of Westville and Naomi's disappearance may be connected to some powerful people. Wilde knows that Crash Maynard, teenage son of TV producer, Dash Maynard, relentlessly bullied Naomi.  When Crash disappears too and a ransom note is sent to his parents, Wilde needs to find out if the disappearance of Naomi and Crash is connected or if there is something else at play. 


Wilde is an interesting, unique, well-developed character. His backstory may seem a bit incredible, but it was believable in the plot and setting Coben sets up for us in The Boy from the Woods. Hester Crimstein always makes a splash as a memorable character, and that is still the case here. There is also a romantic subplot starting for her. Most of the teenagers were just standard teenage characters - bullies, good kids, outcasts - but then standard characters are so because it is the reality.

The plot and subplots are plentiful as the investigations are underway and they are all fun to follow. Wilde is probably a bit more interesting to follow if only to experience his powers of observation as his investigation is underway, but Hester has her own strengths. There were several surprises in the plot, with one being a complete surprise. Politics rears its ugly head in the plot and novel, which I hope is just a fluke and not going to become a ongoing occurrence. All in all The Boy from the Woods is a compelling novel. It may start out a bit slow, but once it picks up the pace you won't want to put it down. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

A Conspiracy of Bones

A Conspiracy of Bones by Kathy Reichs
Scribner: 3/17/20
review copy; 352 pages
Temperance Brennan Series #19

 
A Conspiracy of Bones by Kathy Reichs is a highly recommended 19th novel in the series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance (Tempe) Brennan.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Tempe is recovering from neurosurgery following an aneurysm when she receives a series of texts, each containing a picture of a faceless, hand-less corpse. Her interest is immediately piqued. She doesn't know who the sender is, but she wants to discovery the identity of the man and why the pictures were sent to her. A corpse turns up, but Tempe's new boss, Medical Examiner Margot Heavner, doesn't like her and has not called her in to assist.

Tempe manages to collect clues from the corpse and moves forward with her clandestine investigation, with help from ex-homicide investigator Skinny Slidell. As Tempe uses all her skills to try and uncover the twisted trails leading to the truth, she uncovers the name of the dead man. That leads to even more follows trails that include crimes against children, a spiritual retreat, and into a site on the dark web. She is also questioning herself because she experiences migraines, nightmares, and thinks she might be hallucinating.

Fans of the long running series will be pleased to see Tempe's return, but especially to see Reichs back writing the series. The focus of this installment is more about Tempe's ability to still puzzle through clues and solve a case, while recovering and overcoming health concerns. While I haven't read all the novels in the series, this was a well-written investigative novel and Tempe is a fascinating character.  Her health is a concern, but she still is compelled to investigate.

The development of Tempe's character moves forward and evolves, as she is the main focus of the novel. She does interact with other known characters from the series. While you could read this as a stand-alone novel, it might be more beneficial to read some of the earlier novels in order to establish more background information about the characters and the series.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Woman on the Edge

Woman on the Edge by Samantha M. Bailey
Simon & Schuster: 3/3/20
review copy; 272 pages 


Woman on the Edge by Samantha M. Bailey is a recommended debut psychological thriller.

Morgan Kincaid is standing on a subway platform when a distraught stranger begs her to take her baby. She actually calls Morgan by her name, thrusts her baby into Morgan's arms, and then jumps to her death. Morgan, who is still recovering from her husband Ryan's suicide after he was convicted of embezzlement, doesn't recognize the woman but wonders if she was one of Ryan's victims. Detective Karina Martinez, who was one of those who investigated Ryan’s crimes, is called in to investigate this death. She believes Morgan was involved with Ryan’s embezzlement, so she suspects Morgan was involved in this death.

It is learned that the woman who jumped was Nicole Markham, prominent CEO of the athletic brand Breathe. She was out on maternity leave after having her baby six weeks earlier. After she had the baby, she was experiencing postpartum depression as well as guilt from years ago when she was a nanny and the baby she was caring for died from sudden infant death syndrome. Nicole seemed to be suffering from paranoia since the birth of her daughter, but was it imagined or real?

The narrative is told in alternating timelines, following Morgan in the present day investigation versus Nicole's life leading up to her giving Morgan her baby. Bailey keeps the suspense taut in both timelines as Morgan investigates on her own why this happened, which stands in contrast to what Nicole was experiencing before her death.

While this was a good novel, I had several problems with it. The good points included it is a tense, action packed plot with main characters that are well-developed. Both Morgan and Nicole appear to be realistic characters, although not necessarily believable with everything that happens to them. My issues started when I kept thinking as I was reading that I knew this plot, that it was in some other novel I've read, although no name came to mind. (I read a lot.) I also knew almost at the start who was responsible, even before the baby was born.

In the end, yes, Woman on the Edge is suspenseful, and a quick read, but with an over-the-top melodramatic story that stretches credibility. The writing could have used a bit more editing, although with an advanced reading copy I don't usually mention editing, but it was evident work was needed.

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

Revolver Road

Revolver Road by Christi Daugherty
Macmillian: 3/10/20
review copy; 304 pages
Harper McClain Mystery #3


Revolver Road by Christi Daugherty is a highly recommended mystery and the third book in the Harper McClain series.

Crime reporter Harper McClain is investigating the disappearance of a musician Xavier Rayne from Tybee Island. Harper happens to be living on the island after receiving a credible warning that she needed to move out of Savannah because someone wanted her dead. She never thought that the quiet island where she has been living for months would be the scene of a major story.

Apparently Rayne went out to the beach late at night to write music and never returned. He had just released an album and was about to go on tour. His bandmates and girlfriend are living in his house on the island and seem to be grief stricken, but something doesn't quite feel right to Harper. She manages to befriend Rayne's friends for a source of inside information into his disappearance.

To make matters worse, Harper has uncovered more information that might lead her to the identity of her mother's killer. The killer has ties to Harper's family from years ago but he is about to be released from prison and is coming for Harper. Now Harper is investigating a death while looking out for a killer who is coming for her. Her on-again, off-again love interest, homicide detective Luke Walker, is back helping her.

Harper is an interesting, complex, well-developed character and readers new to the series will like her. In fact all the characters are well-developed, even the minor ones, which makes this even more interesting. It was a bit surprising that Rayne's housemates accepted Harper's overtures for friendship so easily. Under the circumstances, I would expect a whole lot more skepticism and some solid standoffish behavior from them toward any reporter.

The well-written novel features an intricate plot in both of the duel storylines. The investigations into Rayne's death and into her mother's killer are equally compelling plots and will hold your attention. I haven't read the first two Harper McClain novels and had no problem following the plot, so can be read as a stand-alone novel and doesn't require reading the first two to understand the backstory. It is a good enough novel that you will seriously want to read the first two in the series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Gone by Midnight

Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox
Tor/Forge: 3/10/20
eBook review copy; 352 pages
Queensland Series #3 


Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox is a highly recommended investigative thriller and the third book in the Queensland series.

When Sara Farrow’s son, eight-year-old Richie, goes missing from the motel where they are staying while on vacation in Crimson Lake, Queensland, in Australian, she asks for help from private investigators Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell. Ted and Amanda are an unlikely pair of investigators as Ted is a disgraced cop and Amanda is a convicted killer. Both are pariahs in Crimson Lake, but together they are successful investigators. Amanda is immediately intrigued and begins using her unique perspective to gain insight on the case. Ted is also looking into the case, but has other complications. This is the first time his daughter, two-year-old Lillian, is staying with him for a week. He wants to find Richie, but he needs to establish a relationship with Lillian.

Ted and Amanda are simply put, great characters. They are wildly unique, flawed, astute, quirky, and complement each other's style perfectly. They are both damaged in different ways, but wonderfully human. Their relationship and the varied animosity from the police toward them create a hostility right at the start and it doesn't ease up. All the other characters are portrayed as unique individuals too.

The writing was excellent. Fox does a skillful job with the pacing of the plot and keeping the tension mounting in the narrative. There are twists and unexpected complications along the way. Between Ted's personal juggling of his life, the personal vendetta against Amanda, the search for the missing boy, and the strained interactions with the local police, the stress and intrigue keep increasing incrementally throughout this compelling novel.

I was unsure about starting the series with book three, but I had no problem following along and am anxious to read the first two books now. Now that I have discovered them, I'll be looking for future Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell novels.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.

The Operator

The Operator by Gretchen Berg
HarperCollins: 3/10/20
eBook review copy; 352 pages


The Operator by Gretchen Berg is a recommended debut novel about small town secrets set in the early 1950's.

Vivian Dalton is a switchboard operator in Wooster, Ohio, when she overhears a secret bit of gossip about her that sets the whole novel into motion. Sure, Vivian isn't supposed to be listening in on calls, but all the operators do it at times. When Vivian listens into a call from an unknown woman to town snob Betty Miller, she is shocked by the secret that is told because it is about her and her husband. Not being one to take things sitting down, Vivian puts her plan into action, finding out the truth behind it and then dealing with it head on.  The only problem is that one secret often leads to another.

Chapters alternate between several characters but the story is mainly told through Vivian's point-of-view. Characters are true to their upbringing and the societal norms of the 1950's. Vivian is a well-developed character and her personality is clearly depicted. There are class and economic distinctions precisely detailed between characters and in the town. Berg captures the language and concerns of the times, which establishes the time and setting in the plot.

The writing is very good. I liked the dictionary definitions of words sprinkled throughout the novel. Berg also has a way of describing events in a witty, humorous way, like Vivian's misunderstanding over the meaning of a word in a book title or Betty's self-importance setting up her Christmas party and ladies tea. The recipes added to the novel also helps set the tone. I had a struggle keeping my interest in The Operator, however, and all the homey descriptions, period details, funny incidents, and clever wording weren't enough to keep my yawns at bay. I was glad I finished it, but ultimately it won't be memorable. I did appreciate the unraveling that resulted from all the secrets being exposed.

Part of the struggle I had with The Operator is it is required to believe the premise that all the women placed so much importance in the opinions of others, and in listening to gossip. Certainly my mother, who was a product of the 50's can still be concerned with what other people think, but she was also taught by her mother to not participate in the spreading of gossip. You were careful what you said on the party-line, knowing it was open for eavesdropping. Yes, everyone knows everyone else's business in a small town, but not all women participated in this, which makes this novel a little less humorous or clever for me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Silent House

The Silent House by Nell Pattison
HarperCollins: 3/1/20
eBook review copy; 400 pages


The Silent House by Nell Pattison is a recommended debut mystery.

Paige Northwood, a signer and interpreter for the deaf, is called by the police in Scunthorpe, England, to assist in a case where they need a BSL interpreter. The father, Alan, and his girlfriend, Elisha, woke up to find Alan's visiting 18 month old daughter, Lexi, dead. It is clear she was fatally injured, but the two other children in the room were left unharmed. The mother, Laura, father, and girlfriend are all deaf and heard nothing. The police will need Paige's services in order to take statements and question the family.

Paige grew up with normal hearing in a deaf household so BSL is a second language for her, which made her career working as an interpreter a natural choice. She is also involved in the deaf community so she knows the people involved from the local Deaf Club. Her sister Anna was even Lexi's godparent. Her involvement with the deaf community leads Paige and Anna to undertake an investigation of their own.

The Silent House is an intriguing, but uneven novel. The concept is unique, and there is also a lot of information about the deaf community which does help hold your attention and will keep you reading. The synopsis, however, makes the plot sound much more interesting than is the case in this slow moving novel. It starts out strong and then slows down to a crawl. In the end though, the final denouement is very predictable and the twists leading up to it aren't always very plausible. 

Character development is uneven and no one feels like a real person. Paige's repetitious "oh woe is me" laments over dealing with the horrific case became a bit too much at times. I was tired of her repeatedly feeling like throwing up. Perhaps a new descriptive word for Paige's nausea or a new way to describe her discomfort dealing with the case would have helped - or maybe not. Anyway, Paige's behavior is annoying and baffling for much of the novel. One wonders why she is working as an interpreter for the police on a murder case besides the fact that she needs the money.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Please See Us

Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen
Simon & Schuster: 3/3/20
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781982127480


Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen is a highly recommended debut psychological thriller set during a summer dangerous to women in Atlantic City.

There is a serial killer on the loose in Atlantic City. We know this as we are introduced to the Jane Does numbers 1 through 6; some of the women we meet in the story before they are killed and left in the marshland behind the Sunset Motel. Two young women meet in Atlantic City during this uneasy time. One, Lily, is just there for the summer, working at a casino spa, hoping to make some money and recover from a bad experience in NYC where she worked at an art gallery. The other is a teenager who goes by Clara Voyant. Clara is living with her aunt and working as a boardwalk psychic reading tarot cards. Neither woman knows that there is a killer loose, but, after a reading for a prostitutes nicknamed Peaches, Clara begins to have visions and suspects it. She hopes Lily could help her, but Lily is struggling with her own problems.
 
Atlantic City is as much a character as the people in this dark, gritty, heartbreaking story. Both Clara and Lily are well-developed characters while victims and other minor characters are also well defined. The narrative is told through different first person points-of-view, including Clara, Lily, Luis (a janitor), and the victims. I will admit being very angry at Des, Clara's aunt, throughout the novel. Truth be told, I could rant about all the residual anger I have at her for stealing from Clara while expecting Clara to use her sex to earn rent their money from older men. Clearly, violence against women and the fates of women living on the edge of society and becoming victims is at the forefront of this plot - but, then, Luis is also a victim at the hands of violent men.
 
The fact that I became emotionally involved in Please See Us, makes it evident that Mullen did an excellent job writing her debut novel. There are so many wounded, hurting people in this novel. They all have secrets, but feel they have no one they can trust, and Mullen does a good job describing these people living on the edge. The novel is atmospheric and sets the time and place at the beginning. This makes it a little slow to start and takes a while to get the plot rolling along, but once it reaches about the half-way point it takes off. Clearly, Mullen is an author to watch.
 
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Actress

Actress by Anne Enright
W.W. Norton & Company: 3/3/20
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781324005629


Actress by Anne Enright is a highly recommended treatise displaying the love of a daughter for her legendary mother.

Norah, the daughter of renowned Irish actress Katherine O’Dell, tells the story of her mother's life and, thus, her own life. As the novel turns to a biographical style, Norah begins to recount her mother's upbringing and career while she examines the secrets both women have held. Her mother was not Irish at all, as she was born in London, and the apostrophe in her name was originally a typo. Norah retraces the complexities of her mother's life and her own life. Readers know the end result: Katherine's slipping grip on reality and a well-publicized, sense-less criminal act when she shoots a producer in the foot.

Ever present and at the forefront is Norah's love and support for her mother, even as she reveals the secrets both women have held. Norah's chronicle of Katherine's life also highlights her own search for love and family. The end result is a revealed commonality of experiences between mother and daughter that almost all women can share, one of sexual violations and abuses. But the biggest well-kept secret is the identity of Nora's father. At the same time Norah is writing about her husband and how close but precarious their relationship seems at times.

The writing is beautifully done in a stream-of-consciousness style, which makes sense because this is Norah reminiscing. The reader is in her head and she is narrating the story of her mother and her life to a changing third person - the reader, or a writer who came around, or her husband. It accurately depicts a person's thought patterns when telling their story in their head; the recipient differs based on where you are at in the recollections.  The emotional impact is in the insights Norah shares and the observations she makes.

If you are looking for a linear plot to follow, disappointment will occur with Actress. The plot meanders and jumps around in time and subject matter due to the style in which Enright has chosen to write the novel. If you can embrace the idea of being inside a daughter's head as she tells the story, following along will be easier. Lives aren't usually a culmination of a huge event, but rather the many small events of varying consequence. We know almost from the start that Katherine's life will have a big event, and the journey is in finding out her backstory via her daughter's point-of-view. The result is a tender, honest, exquisite depiction of both a mother and daughter that is complex yet unfinished. 


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Deprivation

Deprivation by Roy Freirich
Meerkat Press: 3/3/20
eBook review copy; 275 pages
ISBN-13: 9781946154217


Deprivation by Roy Freirich is a recommended thriller about mass hysteria and sleep deprivation.

On New York’s Carratuck Island a traumatized, silent child is found alone, abandoned on a beach, holding his handheld video game. Physician Sam Carlson checks the boy out. He is dirty, but silent and won't tell anyone who he is. Police Chief Mays wants to wait before calling social services as he is sure the boy's parents will appear. Both Carlson and Mays are battling insomnia. At the same time teenage tourist Cort is playing a dangerous game on social media with her friends, competing to see who can stay awake the longest.

The plague of insomnia spreads as residents and tourists on the town find themselves unable to sleep and turn to Carlson to help. As the small clinic is overwhelmed with patients, he suspects some bio-hazard or external cause is affecting the island, but tests indicate there is no identifiable reason for the mass insomnia. Soon it becomes clear that mass hysteria and mob violence is taking over, making the island a very dangerous place to be, especially for the silent child.

The narrative is told through three different characters, Carlson, Mays, and Cort. Carlson is the best developed character and depicted more realistically than the other two, however he's not a wholly sympathetic character. He is very cerebral, but a bit distant. Chief Mays always felt unbelievable to me. Cort's character doesn't resemble any teen girl or younger person I know. First, her character didn't read like a teen. Second, she and her friends would not be using the social media platform Freirich chose. (They have moved on to something new and once we all catch up there will be something different.)

After I finished reading I was left feeling that this is a rather odd book. At times the writing was beautiful, but at other times it felt odd and over-written. The plot starts out strong, capturing your attention and interest, but then the narrative slows down and is drawn out too long. When things do take off, they explode and move almost too quickly. While I appreciate the underlying commentary on how social media and devices (phones and games) are slowly eroding our quality of life and values as a society in many ways, untoward mass hysteria is not something new to humankind nor does it require cell phones to propagate.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Meerkat Press.

The Companions

The Companions by Katie M. Flynn
Simon & Schuster: 3/3/20
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781982122157


The Companions by Katie M. Flynn is a recommended dystopian science fiction debut novel.

When a highly contagious virus results in people being placed under quarantine in their sealed high rise towers, the Metis Corporation creates "Companions." Companions are the consciousness of a dead person uploaded into a robot and kept in service to the living. Companions range from the early, simple can-like robots to a body-like machine covered in skin. Usually families pay for custody of the Companions of their dead loved ones, but less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death. All companions are the intellectual property of the Metis Corporation. Essentially they have created a new class of people who exist without legal rights or true free will.

Lilac is a very simple robot, one of the early models, leased to a family to be the companion to an adolescent girl, Dahlia. As the narrative begins, Lilac is telling Dahlia her story, the events leading up to her death, while being careful of Dahlia's mother, who hates Lilac. This is when Lilac discovers that not only can she remember her life, she can defy commands, so she runs away to search for the woman who killed her and find out what happened to her best friend. This sets off a chain of events and introduces us to several different characters which will be followed for decades as the plot unfolds.

The character-driven narrative is told through the point-of-view of these eight different figures - some human, some companion. The connection between the characters is Lilac. Her movements link them together as she is part of every story at some point. One of the better developed characters is Gabe, who we meet as a nine-year-old orphan who is street smart and able to hide out in the streets. There is a lot of personal growth and emotional depth to her characterization. However, not all eight of the main characters are that interesting or, really, add a significant layer of depth to the plot.

Part of the problem with the plot is a lack of a specific focus and it feels unfinished. If the focus of the novel is to tell Lilac's story, as it sets out to do at the beginning, and bring closure to her questions about what really happened to her friend and to the girl who killed her, then it does that, but hardly requires the whole novel for the revenge/redemption story. If the purpose of the plot is an introspective look at what makes us human and how human rights are granted, then the focus of the narrative should have been better focused.  And it must be said that the world building is not quite as developed as I was hoping for at the start.

I was hooked at the start and had high hopes for The Companions, but, after I finished the novel, I thought it needed some more work. While the writing is good and it presented an interesting idea, the follow-through with each character and the final denouement was a letdown.

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

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Evil Men Do

The Evil Men Do by John McMahon
Penguin Random House: 3/3/20
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525535560
P.T. Marsh series #2


The Evil Men Do by John McMahon is a very highly recommended procedural. 

Homicide detective P.T. Marsh and his partner Remy Morgan are investigating a suspicious death in Mason Falls, Georgia. Ennis Fultz is a ruthless real estate magnate who has made more than one enemy in his career. It appears that Fultz's oxygen tank may have been tampered with, but the suspects are many, including business associates, rivals, neighbors, and an ex-wife. As Marsh and Morgan investigate the death, it begins to become clear to Marsh that Fultz's death appears to be a part of a much larger set of crimes.

At the same time he is investigating Fultz's death, Marsh is looking at clues that may point to something much more personal, especially after an accident that almost kills his father-in-law. His father-in-law's accident may be related to another accident, one that killed his wife and son. Marsh begins to expand his investigation beyond departmental approval.

The Evil Men Do is a great, skillfully written procedural. McMahon does an excellent job developing the plot in this gripping and atmospheric procedural. While following Marsh as he uncovers clues and follows lead, his character is also revealed. And Marsh is a well-developed character, an emotionally wounded man who is dealing with many personal demons that intrude into his thoughts and the investigation. The expanding investigation and Marsh's insight into what he discovers is riveting to read and I was totally engrossed in the whole narrative.

While this is the second book in the P.T. Marsh series I had no problem following along the continuing story from the first novel, The Good Detective. There was enough information provided in the plot to follow Marsh's thought process during the investigation and the ties to the current case. I haven't read the first book, but plan to because I enjoyed The Evil Men Do so much.

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

The Sea of Lost Girls

The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman
HarperCollins: 3/3/20
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062852021

 
The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman is a highly recommended novel of suspense set at a boarding school on the Maine coast.

Tess and Harmon Henshaw both teach at Haywood, a boarding school on the Maine coast. Her seventeen-year-old son, Rudy, is a student at Haywood who lives on campus in a dorm. When Tess receives a text from Rudy at three in the morning asking her to come and get him, she knows something is terribly wrong. The opening night of the school play was that night and Rudy had a lead in the school play. When he should be celebrating with his classmates, he is instead wet and hiding in his safe place by the beach waiting for his mom to get him. He had a fight with his girlfriend Lila earlier in the week. Rudy has had problems with anger in the past and Tess is very concerned about him.

Four hours later, Tess gets a phone call from the Haywood school headmistress who tells her that Lila, Rudy’s girlfriend, was found dead on the beach, not far from Rudy's safe place. When the police show up at their front door, Tess is immediately protective of Rudy, concerned that they want to talk to him, but her husband, Harmon, is a person of interest too. What complicates the situation is that Tess is hiding things from her past and wants to keep them a secret. Soon it becomes clear that secrets are not going to stay hidden and more may be going on than Tess knows.

Tess is not only hiding secrets from her past, she is an over protective mother who is trying to control Rudy and how he is viewed, as well as her secrets. She doesn't even grasp as soon as she should that the police are interested in Harmon more than Rudy. Tess is an unreliable narrator, and, quite frankly, can begin to grate on your nerves after a while. It's not just Tess, though. There really isn't a likeable character that doesn't become annoying as the plot progresses. A whiny teen and husband doesn't help you feel support for anyone. Basically, don't expect to like anyone in this novel, but they are all well-developed characters.

Goodman does an excellent job in the presentation. The writing is skillful, with a plot that is entertaining, complex, and twisty enough to grab your attention. The revelation of secrets and lies that have been concealed, as will the eventual disclosure of Tess's backstory, is engrossing.  The secrets and reveals just keep coming, with twisty little revelations emerging one after another. While readers might guess the final culprit long before the denouement, it is an entertaining journey full of suspense getting to the end.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Penguin Random House: 2/25/20
eBook review copy; 608 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385348713


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson is a very highly recommended portrait of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz. This riveting nonfiction account reads like a novel.

I will always read anything Erik Larsen writes and have done so since I first read Isaac's Storm. The Splendid and the Vile continues Larsen's excellence in nonfiction.
 
This is an excellent compelling portrait of Winston Churchill’s first year as British prime minister. From May 1940 to May 1941, the German air force launched an assault against the city of London. The relentless bombing campaign was to terrorize and demoralize the population in preparation for an invasion. It is before the USA was in the war. Churchill had to hold his country together while continually reaching out to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Larsen profiles Churchill, but also looks at those close to him including, in part: his wife Clementine; their 17-year-old daughter, Mary; their son, Randolph, and his wife, Pamela; his private secretary, John “Jock” Colville; Lord BeaverbrookFrederick Lindemann, and others. He also covers the actions of Nazi leaders during this time. Larsen uses diary and journal entries from the people involved, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports, as well as other documents from the time. The people come alive as real humans living through an extraordinary time while under tremendous stress.

The historical narrative is told through day by day events for the year. It is an eloquent, richly detailed and long account, but the historical facts are written in such a way that it reads like a novel. The history comes alive in this account. You know what is going to happen, but it is still a compelling, fascinating narrative that will grip your attention throughout.

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

The Unexpected Spy

The Unexpected Spy by Tracy Walder, with Jessica Anya Blau
St. Martin's Publishing Group: 2/25/20
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250230980


The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists by Tracy Walder is a highly recommended memoir about the author's experiences in the CIA and FBI.

Tracy went from being a student at the University of Southern California and in a Delta Gamma sorority house in 2000 to a special agent in the CIA. She was in the CIA when 9/11 occurred and she soon found herself looking for WMD, tracking chemical terrorists, and identifying and watching al-Qaeda members with drones. She felt compelled to help stop further attacks and left the relative safety of a job at CIA headquarters to go undercover in the Middle East as a counterterrorism specialist tracking al-Qaeda.
 
Then, wanting to be closer to her family, she went into the FBI where she worked in counterintelligence. The FBI was very different that the CIA. There she encountered blatant sexism and bullying behavior from both trainers and recruits. Walder left the FBI to become a teacher at an all-girls school where she can encourage young women to find a place in the FBI, CIA, State Department or the Senate.

Walder has to describe her job at the CIA in general terms due to national security. During the vetting of the book, the CIA actually redacted many large blocks of her original text. She chose to leave these portions of the text as blacked-out lines rather than rewriting the accounts. While seeing the extent of the redacted blocks of text is mildly interesting, perhaps a better approach would have been to insert a [redacted text] and then continue the story or do a rewrite.

Walder has a lot to be proud of so why not tell her story with a look at being an inspiration to young women. While I do see that a case could be made that there is a hint of bragging look-at-me-and-what-I-did, I also felt like this is her story and it is amazing. She was a young woman working in the CIA during a trying time. If she also needs to talk about her blond hair, makeup, etc., it's okay with me because it is a part of her personality and shows that she can be a special agent at the CIA and care about little frivolous things too. I would encourage young women to read this, especially if they are interested in a career in the CIA or FBI.

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