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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sister Dear

Sister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon
MIRA Books: 5/26/20
eBook review copy; 368 pages

Sister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon is a recommended psychological thriller.

Eleanor Hardwicke’s beloved father dies leaving her alone in the world. Her mother, long divorced from her father, is a wretched woman who has always favored her sister and relished abusing Eleanor emotionally. Even worse than losing her father is learning that he wasn't her biological father. She was the product of an affair and before he died her father left the name of her biological father. Eleanor researches him, discovers they both live in Portland, Maine. He is married with a glamorous wife and they have a beautiful daughter, Victoria. Eleanor meets with him, learning he paid her mother off to leave and he wants nothing to do with her. Eleanor sets her sights on meeting her half-sister. She manages to insert herself into Victoria's life and becomes part of her world.

The narrative is told from Eleanor's point-of-view and you know right from the start that something is going to go terribly wrong. A whole lot goes wrong for Eleanor right away, and there is some sympathy for her at the beginning and you will hope she can pull herself together. You will hope she gives her neighbor Lewis a chance, but you will also wonder why he seems too good to be real. You'll wonder why she hasn't smartened up about her mother and sister. Then her mental state seems to become more unstable as she constantly berates herself, even as she is trying to get close to her newly discovered half-sister.  After that she does start to grate on your nerves as the plot takes a turn to the unbelievable. Victoria is too good to be real.

It is more chick lit than psychological thriller and I didn't care for any of the characters by the end. The ending itself is a sudden twisty reveal, but at that point you are already anticipating what happens so it's not shocking. I admittedly had to force myself to continue reading this after the halfway point, but it did end up holding my attention and I finished it, so kudos for that.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.

Fair Warning

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Company: 5/26/20
eBook review copy; 416 pages

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly is a highly recommended procedural featuring reporter Jack McEvoy.

Jack McEvoy is a veteran reporter who is now working for FairWarning, an online news site that focuses on protecting consumers from fraud. When Christina (Tina) Portrero, a woman he had a one night stand with a year ago is murdered, the police question him as a person of interest. Jack learns she was killed by internal decapitation, meaning her head was twisted 180 degrees. He also learns she took a DNA test through a company called GT23 and that she felt she had a stalker. Even after the police ordered him to stop his investigation, Jack continues looking into other women who were murdered or died in the same way Tina did and their connection to GT23. It becomes clear that a killer has been hunting women using genetic data from their DNA to target them.

The well-written complex plot focuses on the very real unregulated genetic testing industry and the abuses that could potentially result from the lack of oversight. As the plot moves briskly along, the investigation quickly reveals leads that result in actions and revelations. The investigation is compelling and follows several trails to piece together the clues leading to the final heart stopping denouement. The procedural details are a pleasure to follow.

The roles of the characters are clearly defined and they all interact in a realistic manner as they essentially all act in support for (or opposition to) Jack's investigation. I have not read the previous novels featuring Jack McEvoy, but I feel like I was brought up to speed and enjoyed this solid, intelligent procedural. The pages flew by as the action unfolded and there were some frightening disclosures about the genetic testing industry and how that once that DNA is given it can be sold and resold.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Ballad of Ami Miles

The Ballad of Ami Miles by Kristy Dallas Alley
Feiwel & Friends: 12/1/20
eBook review copy; 272 pages

The Ballad of Ami Miles by Kristy Dallas Alley is a recommended young adult novel that follows a teen girl on a quest to find her long-lost mother in a post-apocalyptic future.

In this changed world, many women of child bearing years are unable to have children. Ami Miles mother met a traveler and was miraculously able to conceive her, but then her mother had to leave her after her birth to keep Ami safe. She has been raised by her grandparents at the family compound, Heavenly Shepherd. When Ami is sixteen she returns from the woods to see an older stranger at the compound and it becomes clear that her grandparents expect her to submit to his affection and breed with her so she can carry on the family line. Luckily, her aunts and uncles know what is going on and have a plan in place to set her off on a journey to find her mother. They disagree with her grandfather's patriarchal control over everyone and want to save her. Ami follows a clue left by her mother. She was told to give it to Ami when she was ready to leave the compound and find her. This is the story of Ami's quest to find her mother and discover who she really is.

This is a well written novel that is definitely YA and has a very simplistic plot that is in many ways allegorical. The bad guys are definitely bad and caricatures of a type and the good guys clearly good. The focus is on Ami's internal thoughts as she deals with a world that is not at all as her grandfather described. She learns about herself and others while being introduced to other points-of-view that challenge several controversial topics from her upbringing. She is introduced to the ideas of women's rights, sexual identity, racism, and self-determination. The story does leave you with several unanswered questions and unresolved issues, but likely the target audience won't notice this absence.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillan.

The Falling Woman

The Falling Woman by Richard Farrell
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 6/23/20
eBook review copy; 336 pages 

The Falling Woman by Richard Farrell is a recommended debut novel about tragedy, privacy, and the right to control your own story.

A plane on a cross-country flight comes apart in mid-air over Kansas. A young National Transportation Safety Board investigator, Charlie Radford, is sent as part of the team that will investigate and determine what caused the crash. When people begin to talk about a woman who survived the crash, everyone knows that surviving such a crash is nearly impossible. It is said that she was found in a barn, still strapped into her seat. She was taken to the hospital, but later quietly left without telling anyone. Charlie ends up investigating the woman, starting with the crash and then trying to find her.

Erin Geraghty, a lawyer who is married and has two children in college, has pancreatic cancer. When she embarked on her flight and impossibly survived, she was already essentially on her way to death, so she wanted to live out her days in peace without media scrutiny and allow her family to grieve her. She called her former lover who drove her to his cabin, where she hid out and did not contact her family. When Charlie Radford ends up finding her, he wants her to come forward, but she's not interested.

The focus of the plot is the right to control our own story, the right of privacy, and our responsibilities to our love ones. The narrative alternates between the characters of Charlie and Erin. A big part of the plot involves the personal lives of these two characters. Charlie does not want children, but his wife does. Erin does not want to put her husband and twin daughters through any more turmoil after her ongoing cancer treatment. In many ways the inclusion of trivial details about Charlie and Erin's personal lives detracted from the overriding message of the plot. For example, Erin's marriage lacks passion so she had an affair, but she also left her husband and children not knowing she was alive as they were trying to identify victims. Speaking as a mother, this is unthinkable and a cruel thing to do to your family. Charlie's constant fights with his wife over having a child needed a serious discussion and not just a constant mention. The writing is good in this debut novel, but also seems to drag on for too long in the middle. The plot is an interesting story but at times it strains credulity.

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

Dark Mirror

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State by Barton Gellman
Penguin Random House; 5/19/20
eBook review copy; 448 pages

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State by Barton Gellman is a very highly recommended account of Edward Snowden's 2013  leak of National Security Agency (NSA) files and the inside story of Gellman's investigation and its repercussions.

"Edward Snowden touched off a global debate in 2013 when he gave Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald each a vast and explosive archive of highly classified files revealing the extent of the American government’s access to our every communication. They shared the Pulitzer Prize that year for public service. For Gellman, who never stopped reporting, that was only the beginning.  He jumped off from what Snowden gave him to track the reach and methodology of the U.S. surveillance state and bring it to light with astonishing new clarity.  Along the way, he interrogated Snowden’s own history and found important ways in which myth and reality do not line up.  Gellman treats Snowden with respect, but this is no hagiographic account, and Dark Mirror sets the record straight in ways that are both fascinating and important..."

The professionally written and organized narrative follows two different threads. The first is Snowden's backstory up to his contacting reporters to send them the stolen files and tell his story. The second part is Gellman's story about his investigation, the illegal intrusion and surveillance of citizen's private lives, and the overreach of meddling in his personal life. Dark Mirror is not a book about Snowden, although he is a part of it. Gellman believes that Snowden did more good than harm, but he will concede that Snowden's disclosures exacted a price in lost intelligence. The power of electronic surveillance requires secrecy in order to catch targets unaware. Dark Mirror is a look at how, after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government came to believe its electronic surveillance of enemies necessitated the inclusion of Americans as well. The NSA extended its data collection into digital areas used by almost everyone, including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook accounts, among others.  FYI: "A smartphone is an excellent tracking device. It works well as a remote-controlled microphone, too, for someone who knows how to switch it on."

What people need to be concerned about is that the NSA arranged our phone records in a "one-hop contact chain of each to all. All kinds of secrets - social, medical, political, professional - were precomputed, 24/7." Gellman was told that there was no cause for concern because "the links are unassembled until you launch a query." But he said "I saw a database that was preconfigured to map anyone’s life at the touch of a button." ALL your digital/online activity tied to a contact chain and all it takes is someone to decide they are going to violate of your right to privacy. Government officials countered to Gellman with the statement that the potential power was not being used or abused and American citizens were not being spied on. It was said that that the government/NSA really doesn’t care about us in that way because we are not that interesting from a national security point of view. The good news is that the Freedom Act of 2015 prohibits the bulk collection of phone records and that internet traffic is more encrypted, making surveillance more difficult. (More difficult does not equate impossible.) Any protections set in place can be stripped away in an instant.

I found this a totally engrossing account of Snowden's actions and everything that followed his release of the files. Dark Mirror sparked several long discussions and debates as I was reading it. The debate is still ongoing, but the discussions and the questions need continuous scrutiny. This is an excellent, even-handed examination of Snowden's actions and Gellman's investigation that is well-worth reading and considering the implications revealed within the narrative.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here

Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan
Bloomsbury USA: 5/19/20
eBook review copy; 336 pages

Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan is a recommended debut symbolic disaster novel featuring a strong sense of place, magic realism, and environmental concerns.

Set during the 2015 Memorial Day floods In the hill country of Texas, this debut novel opens with 18-year-old Boyd Montgomery planning to spend time with her friend Isaac camping and panning for gold. The two part ways when Isaac leaves after being called by his father and Boyd has to attend her Grandfather's wedding. The area has been under a severe drought, so rain is welcome thought, but soon it is an overwhelming deluge and becomes the storm of the century. Boyd returns from the wedding and discovers Isaac is missing. She has special insights and knows that Isaac is in trouble so she sets out to save him, encountering odd happenings, a live scarecrow, disruption of time, and ghosts along the journey. Boyd's neighbor, Carla sets out to find her. Hours later Boyd's mother, Lucy Maud, shows up with her estranged husband and Boyd's father, Kevin, and they start searching for Boyd (and Isaac) with two other relatives. The land has experienced flash floods and rivers are out of their banks. Bridges are down. There is no easy path to try to find each other between the weird weather and otherworldly characters along the way.

The Texas Hill Country is described in sharp, memorable detail, which adds credibility to a plot that is also quite supernatural at times. All the characters are portrayed as complicated individuals. Boyd's gift of understanding other people's emotional pain and feelings comes with a price and adds significantly to the magic realism throughout the plot. The novel is packed with symbolism and is more an allegorical tale wrapped up in the package of a fast-paced disaster novel. The writing is quite good and very descriptive, but this debut novel wants readers to dig deeper, to compare and contrast the character's actions and appreciate all the symbolism. There are numerous examples of the juxtaposition of two views of the same thing - behaviors, emotions, desires, places, and people.

Interspersed in the narrative are short breaks instructing the reader about various topics - climate change, gold panning, flash floods, etc. which detracted from the actual plot. They weren't an entirely successful device for me. The stilted tone left by these breaks in the plot was rather disjointed and disconcerting. They also contrasted sharply with the magic realism, supernatural, and otherworldly parts of the narrative. 3.5 stars

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury USA.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Brave Girl, Quiet Girl

Brave Girl, Quiet Girl by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Lake Union Publishing: 5/19/20
eBook review copy; 300 pages

Brave Girl, Quiet Girl by Catherine Ryan Hyde is a highly recommended contemporary drama set in L.A. that starts with a carjacking and then explores the often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters.

Brooke is a divorced and the mother of two-year-old Etta. Due to finances, she has been forced to move in with her domineering, judgmental, and critical mother. One night when her mother starts complaining about Brooke's parenting, Brooke takes Etta out to a children's movie. On the way home her life is shattered when she’s carjacked - and the ca is gone with Etta still strapped in the backseat. Brooke is frantic and inconsolable as she waits for news at the police station.

Miles away, Etta is abandoned on a sidewalk and found by Molly, a sixteen-year-old homeless teen who is living on the streets with her friend Bodhi. With no one in sight, she brings Etta back to the crate she calls home to keep her safe until she can call the police. Bodhi goes out and brings back apple juice and goldfish crackers for Etta, but also tells Molly that they must hide her and Etta because there are three guys looking for them with the intention of ransoming Etta back to her mother. He finds the two a safe spot and leaves to call the police, but never returns. Molly manages to keep Etta safe and quiet when the three malcontents are heard talking nearby, looking for them.

After a fraught night, Molly manages to contact the police to get Etta back to her mother. When Brooke sees Molly, dirty, disheveled and obviously a homeless street person, she immediately is suspicious and judgmental. Soon, however, the complete story is revealed to Brooke and she understands what Molly did to protect Etta and keep her safe. Etta also is saying Molly's name and obviously felt safe and loved while in the girl's care.

This is a social commentary story full of tension and judgmental attitudes that change and result in a heart-warming tale of understanding and compassion. Molly was thrown out of her home by her critical mother (and she reveals why late in the story) while Brooke is also dealing with a critical mother. The story quickly switches gears after the carjacking and the focus becomes compassion for others, love and trust, what makes a family, changing attitudes, and a final moment of utter clarity of a future course beneficial to all.

The writing is quite good, despite the emotional manipulation, and clearly becomes a message novel - which is fine. The plot is basically simple as the narrative alternates between the point-of-view of Brooke and Molly. While it does tackle social issues, they are simplified in the narrative, which, again, is fine. This is going to be a glimpse at some social issues, but won't tackle the more  grim, gritty, and complicated reality. It is a quick read and will hold your attention throughout. The denouement is a feel-good heart-warming story that is neatly concluded.

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

The Wife Stalker

The Wife Stalker by Liv Constantine
HarperCollins: 5/19/20
eBook review copy; 320 pages

The Wife Stalker by Liv Constantine is a highly recommended psychological thriller set in upscale Westport, Connecticut.

Piper Reynard has recently moved to Westport where she runs a rehab and wellness space and joins a local yacht club. She is starting over with a new name and hopes that her past won't catch up to her here. When she meets Leo Drakos, a handsome, successful lawyer, she feels an immediate attraction and knows he feels the same way - despite the ring on his finger. Piper maneuvers things so the two quickly become very close. At home, Joanna knows that the depression Leo has been battling will lift sometime and the charming, energetic man she loves will return. He certainly loves the children, Evie and Stelli. Joanna is shocked to discover that Leo's mood has been lifting due to Piper.

When Joanna has to take care of her mother and moves out of the house, she is shocked when Leo sends all her belongings there and tells her it is over. How could he divorce her and keep her away from the children all because he just met Piper? And who is this interloper anyway? Joanna begins to dig into Piper's mysterious past while at the same time Leo marries her. Joanna tries to talk to her therapist about her concerns but they are dismissed. Piper does have secrets in her past that Joanna is uncovering. In the meantime, Piper is struggling to be a stepmother to the children.

The narrative alternates between the point-of-view of Piper and Joanna. Clearly Joanna does not recognize the threat Piper poses to her until it is too late. It also becomes clear that neither woman is a completely reliable narrator. Joanna is clearly written as the wounded party and Piper as a scheming home-breaker in the beginning. Piper's point-of-view displays her in a negative light as we know her struggles and frustrations, while Joanna's first person account shows a caring mother and hurt wife. Then, as the plot continues, the actions of both women just don't quite line up and astute readers are going to pick up on the aberrant clues quickly. Chiefly among the first hints that something is amiss is that Leo's depression and the onset of it is addressed obliquely, but never candidly.  Then the narrative becomes somewhat of a cat-and-mouse game as you wait for someone to show their true nature.

Liv Constantine is the writing team of sisters Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine. You may have to set aside disbelief over several events in the novel, but it is a well-crafted psychological thriller. They use the alternating points-of-view successfully to methodically ratchet up the tension and disbelief until the final twisty denouement. The alternating POVs allow some character development, but it also requires that they hold things back to provide the finale with several shocking reveals.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Children of Ash and Elm

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price Basic Books: 8/25/2020
eBook review copy; 624 pages

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price is a very highly recommended history and examination of the Viking Age, from 750 to 1050. This is a comprehensive history of the Vikings in which Price looks at who they really were as a people, how they viewed themselves rather than how other cultures defined them. They would not have recognized or identified themselves as "Vikings." In the past many histories that give a history of the Vikings view them through the eyes of another culture, and usually with the result of placing the contact culture in the positive light and the Vikings in a negative light. Price presents a more equitable picture. He draws on historical records, discoveries made at archaeological digs and burial sites across Europe, and the historical observations made by those who had contact with them at the time.
"The emphasis here is very firmly on who the Vikings really were, what made them tick, how they thought and felt. Their dramatic expansion will not be ignored, of course, but its context, its origins, are at the core of what follows. Where better to begin, then, than with the creation itself? The tale of the gods fashioning the first humans from stumps of wood, on the shores of the world ocean, has roots that extend very deeply into Norse mythology. For all the fearful confusion about their identity among those they encountered, in the Vikings’ own minds there was never any doubt at all: they were the children of Ash, the children of Elm."

The comprehensive history is divided into three parts.
"The first part explores this realm through the Vikings’ sense of self, and of their environment, and begins by delineating the contours of its landscape both on the ground and inside their heads. It explores their unique understandings of personhood, gender, and the place of the individual in the many dimensions of the cosmos. This also involves meeting the other beings with whom the Vikings shared these spaces."
"The second part goes back to the early 700s, but follows a different path to seek the major sociopolitical developments and demographic factors that slowly combined to trigger the Viking phenomenon itself. This was the time of the raids and their gradual escalation from isolated attacks to invasions of conquest, in the ever-present context of expanding trade networks. The maritime culture of Scandinavia, the rise of the sea-kings, and the development of uniquely mobile pirate polities are the focus here. The beginnings of the diaspora can be traced in all directions..."
"Part three moves the story to the mid-eleventh century, as the Viking phenomenon diversified across the northern world. Its consequences included an urban revolution in the Scandinavian economies and the reorganization of the countryside, paralleled by the consolidation of royal power and the rising influence of a new faith." Viking cities and power bases were established across the world at this time. The idea of separate identities of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden began and they started becoming a part of Christian Europe.

I have literally pages of notes from reading Children of Ash and Elm. Certainly I can't share everything, but I would encourage anyone who is interested in an equitable history of the Vikings to read Children of Ash and Elm. I was engrossed in the whole book and all the finds and research Price includes. It is a fascinating and extensive examination of the Vikings, children of the great ash tree Yggdrasill, their culture, explorations and sweeping travels. The final publication will include a 16 page color insert, maps, chapter notes, references, and index.

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

This Is How I Lied

This Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf
Park Row Books: 5/12/20
eBook review copy; 336 pages 

This Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf is a highly recommended thriller/murder mystery set in a small Iowa town.

"Twenty-five years ago, the body of sixteen-year-old Eve Knox was found in the caves near her home in small-town Grotto, Iowa - discovered by her best friend, Maggie, and her sister, Nola. There were a handful of suspects, including her boyfriend, Nick, but without sufficient evidence the case ultimately went cold." Now a new piece of evidence has been found and the cold case is being reopened. Maggie is a police detective in Grotto and is handling the investigation despite her connection to the old case and the fact that she is seven months pregnant. Maggie's father, who handled the original case obsessed over the file for years. Now Maggie, who has been haunted by the case for years, is reviewing the case files and evidence, and notifying the Knox family, in preparation to send the old evidence and the new discovery to the state lab for testing.

This is a well written novel full of suspense and tension. There are several suspects still living in this small Iowa town who are connected to the case in same way and most of them are odd or guilty of other crimes. As Maggie looks into the case, secrets begin to emerge, but small towns can keep things hidden even when gossip is swirling around. And someone clearly has deadly intentions, although pinpointing the guilty party is complicated. The novel moves along at a good pace and will hold your attention throughout.

The narrative alternates between characters and flips from 1995 and 2020. This means that Eve is among the well-developed characters and we know her secrets too. Maggie is a great character. You can tell that she's guarded and keeps herself in check. She has a whole lot of other things going on along with the investigation. Eve's sister Nola is a complicated character and an obvious suspect right from the start - but soon there are some other characters that quickly join that list. 

While I enjoyed the novel quite a bit, I had a few reservations. I felt that some of the small town secrets would have and should have been outed sooner, the ability to test certain evidence is questionable, and the ending went a wee-bit-over-the-top for me. But, if you just want to read a well-written mystery/thriller with strong female characters, This Is How I Lied will certainly fit the bill.

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

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Last High

The Last High by Daniel Kalla
Simon & Schuster: 5/12/20
eBook review copy; 320 pages 

The Last High by Daniel Kalla is a highly recommended thriller featuring a killer - the opioid crisis - and the search for the source.

Dr. Julie Rees, a toxicologist and ER doctor in Vancouver, is working the night that a group of six teens from a party arrive at the ER, four are dead and two are fighting for their lives. She clearly suspects that the deaths are due to an overdose of fentanyl. The question is how did all six overdose and could they have bought a batch that is deadly. Julie works with Detective Anson Chen to try and track down the dealer that sold the drugs to the teens. As they look at the known dealers and suppliers, more deaths are occurring. It seems that there is a truly deadly batch of drugs being sold on the streets that is now being labeled "the last high."

This is a well-written fast paced thriller that will hold your attention from beginning to end. Kalla, an ER doctor himself, takes the current opioid crisis and seamlessly weaves it into a shocking search for who is responsible while trying to get the drugs off the street to limit the number of deaths. Any medical information is presented in an easy to understand style and is all definitely part of the plot.  The focus of the action stays on the search for the drug and the mayhem it is causing, so there aren't a lot of side plots or distractions - unless you count the attraction between Julie and Anson, but this is while they are working the case.

Julie and Anson are well developed characters who are both dealing with some personal issues. They are attracted to each other and this comes out clearly in their work to track down the drugs. Personally, I could have done without the romance bit. I would rather have they continued to focus on their search for the suspects and just kept their mutual attraction there, in the background, as they worked.

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

How to Bury Your Brother

How to Bury Your Brother by Lindsey Rogers Cook
Sourcebooks: 5/12/20
eBook review copy; 384 pages

How to Bury Your Brother by Lindsey Rogers Cook is a highly recommended look at a dysfunctional Southern family with secrets.

Alice's best friend, her brother Rob, ran away at age fifteen. She was five years younger than him and has missed him ever since then. Two decades later she is attending his funeral. His death, her mother tells her, was a heart attack due to an overdose on Oxycontin. She never had closure over his disappearance and death, so eight years later when her mother is in a memory care facility and she is cleaning out her mother's house she is shocked to come across Rob's guitar and a stack of seven letters he has written to various people. She also finds an autopsy report showing her family's lies. Alice is hurt that her mother hid all of this and never said a word to her. She is also hurt that she is not among the letter recipients, but she decides to find the people Rob wrote to and give them the letter he wrote to them years earlier.

This is a well-written, perceptive novel of dark secrets that families keep hidden and the secrets that are exposed but not acknowledged. Alice must not only face the secrets uncovered in the letters, she must also admit to the problems in her own life. As Alice delivers the letters, both truths hidden in the past and those not confronted in the future are revealed. She discovers some truths about her brother while she reexamines her relationship with her mother and, ultimately, she learns something about herself. While the pacing of the plot is uneven and interminably slow at times, it does pick up toward the end. Rob's story kept me reading. The final denouement is unexpected, but does tie in with the storyline.

Both Alice and her brother are well-developed characters. For all his problems, Rob becomes an appealing likeable character in the end after the letters are revealed. It is heartbreaking when he finally shares why he ran away. Alice mentions her husband's ongoing affair at the start but, much to my chagrin, just lets it slide without confrontation for much of the novel. Her inability to say something was off-putting. There were some other unanswered questions and encounters that made the end of the novel just a bit too pat for me. I do think this could be a good choice for bookclubs to discuss as there are plenty of issues presented that could evoke many reactions. 3.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Enemy of All Mankind

Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson
Penguin Random House: 5/12/20
eBook review copy; 304 pages 

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson is a very highly recommended account of Henry Every, the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate.

"In the case of these two ships confronting each other in the Indian Ocean, those nearly microscopic causes will trigger a wave of effects that resonate around the world. Most confrontations like this one, viewed from the wide angle of history, are minor disputes, sparks that quickly die out. But every now and then, someone strikes a match that lights up the whole planet. This is the story of one of those strikes."

In September 1695, English pirate and mutineer Henry Every, captain of the Fancy, attacked and seized a Grand Mughal treasure ship returning to India from Mecca. This act, one of the most lucrative crimes in history (about $20 million today), had global ramifications and sparked the first international manhunt and the trial of the 17th century. Every's name is even somewhat disputed. It may have been "John Avery" but he also briefly went by Benjamin Bridgeman. It is agreed that he was born near Plymouth, in Devonshire, on the southwest coast of England in the late 1650s.

Johnson also covers the history of piracy before Every, starting with the Sea People in the Bronze Age, up to Every's act that triggered of a major shift in the global economy in the emerging power of the expanding British Empire, the East India Company, and the modern global marketplace. While the British Crown put a huge price on Every's head, only five of his crew were arrested, tried twice, and hanged. Every's daring piracy and escape also marked the spread of his fame as a working class hero. He and his crew became celebrities of a sort and legends, even inspiring a song.   

As expected, Enemy of All Mankind is a fascinating, well-researched, and thoroughly enjoyable account of a little known pirate and the repercussions of his actions. I completely enjoyed reading this detailed examination of how one act of piracy placed in a historical context reverberate across centuries and had far-reaching consequences. Like Johnson's other books, this narrative is highly readable making it interesting to both the curious and history buffs and shows how one event can result in lasting, far-reaching consequences.

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The End of the River

The End of the River by Simon Winchester
Scribd: 4/14/20
eBook review copy; 44 pages 

The End of the River by Simon Winchester is a recommended short treatise on the seemingly impossible future challenge of controlling the path of the Mississippi River as it rolls to the Gulf by New Orleans.

The Mississippi is the third largest river in the world and ends up moving two-thirds of the watershed of the continental USA down to the Gulf. It is the most commercially active river on the planet. The struggle to control and tame the mighty Mississippi has been an ongoing effort for years and, in many ways is an impossible herculean task that never should have been undertaken. At this point in history the structures built to contain and control the river were made half a century ago and are inadequate to deal with a river that no longer resembles the one from years past.

Winchester covers the history of the methods of control, the structures built, and the looming environmental and human disaster that awaits due to changing weather patterns. "The ultimate problem for these structures relates not so much to their engineering shortcomings as to one simple reality: They were designed half a century ago, and were made to try to deal with a river that barely resembles its current incarnation, and to function in an environment that is also now drastically and unrecognizably different."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribd.

What We Forgot to Bury

What We Forgot to Bury by Marin Montgomery
Thomas & Mercer: 5/1/20
eBook review copy; 439 pages 

What We Forgot to Bury by Marin Montgomery is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Due to a dark incident in her past, Charlotte Coburn doesn't trust anyone and is overly cautious about everything so when a teenager, Elle, knocks at her door during a severe storm, she is hesitant to help the girl. But the girl is clearly soaked through and the storm is severe, so she relents and allows the girl to enter her home. While Elle seems to be a typical friendly teen who truly just needed a place to shelter, that's not the truth. Elle chose Charlotte's house on purpose and planned the whole meeting. Elle's father is in prison and he blames Charlotte's lies for his unjust incarceration and claims she is the one who ruined Elle's family.

As the plot unfolds through the alternating points-of-view of Charlotte and Elle, both of them are unreliable narrators and both of them have their own dark schemes that require having a relationship with the other. Readers will catch both characters in lies and deceptions. It is unclear if you can trust either of them over anything. With both characters basically unlikable, what will keep you reading is trying to figure out the long con, what do each of the characters have planned have planned for the other. The characters are well-developed, but you won't know what you can trust, especially with Charlotte.

The back and forth narrative will hold your attention simple due to the calculating and duplicitous behavior you know is going on but is left unspoken.  While the novel does run on a little long and could be tightened up, it is still engaging. There are so many actions the characters take that will have you asking, "Why? That doesn't make sense." This alone kept me reading. I didn't suspect, however, where the ending would go until we were there. The final denouement is a little over the top, but What We Forgot to Bury is entertaining.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Imperfects

The Imperfects by Amy Meyerson
Harlequin/Park Row Books: 5/5/20
eBook review copy; 384 pages 

The Imperfects by Amy Meyerson is a highly recommended drama about a dysfunctional family and a unbelievable inheritance.

When their grandmother, Helen Auerbach, passes away, estranged siblings Beck, Ashley and Jake and their mother, Deborah Miller, must come together to face old resentments and betrayals. Helen's will leaves her house to Deborah, which all three of her children resent. It also leaves a brooch to Beck, which also causes friction, especially when they learn that the large yellow stone in it is very likely the Florentine Diamond, a 137-carat yellow gemstone that went missing from the Austrian Empire a century ago. It is worth millions and Becks two siblings and her mother are all eyeing the monetary value. The inheritance problem, among so many other issues they have individually, is that the diamond needs to be authenticated and the ownership of it, the provenance, needs to be proven. 

If you think your family has issues, then meet the Millers. Deborah has let her children down for years and did little to care for her mother. Beck made sure her Grandmother Helen was doing alright, so it seems natural that Helen's most valuable possession would be bequeathed to her. Naturally, if you need money because your part time job isn't cutting it and your girlfriend is pregnant (Jake) or if your husband is involved in some illegal shenanigans (Ashley), you are going to resent your younger sister for the inheritance. Oh, this is a motley crew of dissatisfied people who must now work together to prove their legal ownership of the Florentine Diamond. It gets even more complicated when news of the diamond gets out and various countries and estates file a claim to it.

The well-plotted narrative is told through the alternating points of view of all four Millers, who are portrayed as flawed, but well-developed characters. They struggle to work together to uncover the secrets of Helen's past even while their personal resentments keep rising to the surface. The family's interpersonal struggles almost overshadow the investigation into Helen's past and the mystery of how she came into possession of the diamond. It will become clear to the reader early on that even if they get a 10 million dollar payoff from selling the diamond, it is doubtful they'll be happy. The ending is somehow right and wrong at the same time in this entertaining but sometimes exhausting novel. 3.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Harlequin/Park Row Books.

Hard Cash Valley

Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich
Macmillian/St. Martin's; 5/5/20
eBook review copy; 304 pages

Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich is a very highly recommended gritty Southern noir procedural.

Arnie Blackwell, a petty criminal who made a huge score, is viciously murdered in Jacksonville, Florida. Dane Kirby, Georgia Bureau of Investigation freelancer, is surprised when he is called to fly down to Florida, view the crime scene and then assigned to work with FBI Special Agent Roselita Velasquez, replacing her partner. After reviewing what is known about the victim, he quickly realizes that the case will lead them back to the criminal circles in his own backyard of McFalls County, Georgia. Arnie was recently in McFalls County at the Slasher, the largest cockfighting tournament in the U.S., and he won big - too big. Complicating the case is that Arnie's younger brother William is missing and the boy may have an unusual ability that others want to take advantage of.

There is a whole lot of interesting well-developed characters present in Hard Cash Valley. Dane Kirby is a wounded man, haunted by the death of his family, and he carries his anguish and pain with him every day. But he also understands the locals and has an insight into the area's criminal activity and the connections between people. I'll admit an immediate dislike for Misty as well as some other characters that you were set up to dislike right from the start. William is a great character. The locals are interesting and there are a whole lot of backstories and alliances between them.
The writing is incredible and perfectly depicts and captures the place and people. This is a well-crafted dark and gritty story, with an overabundance of violence and cruelty, but it all pertains to the case in some way. The plot is compelling and you will be reading as fast as you can to see what happens next. Even though this is the third thriller Panowich has set in Georgia’s McFalls County, you can read it as a standalone. 4.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian/St. Martin's.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Queenie Malone's Paradise Hotel

Queenie Malone's Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan
HarperCollins: 4/14/20
P.S. paperback; 352 pages

Queenie Malone's Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan is a highly recommended examination of the complicated relationship between a daughter and her mother.

Thirty-nine-year-old Tilda's mother, Grace, has died and she has returned to Brighton for the first time since her mother sent her away to boarding school. Tilda considered living at Queenie Malone's Paradise Hotel in Brighton with her mom to be the best family she ever had so being sent away to boarding school opened up a fissure that never closed. Life with her mother was always a struggle after her father disappeared and her mother told her he died. As she sorts through her mother's things, she reflects on her relationship with her mother and examines what happened many years ago when Tilda went by the nickname Tilly.

The narrative in alternating chapters by Tilly (approximately age 7) and adult Tilda, with excerpts from Grace's journals included as Tilda reads them. The chapter headings tell you who is narrating them, but it is easy to distinguish between the point-of-view of a child and an adult. Additionally, Tilly's chapters are all told in third person while Tilda's are in first person. Tilda/Tilly has the gift of "sight" and she see things other people can't see, ghosts or spirits, so every character introduced may not be exactly what you initially think. When you read Tilda's chapters you immediately know that she is a damaged woman who needs her rituals to feel safe.

The writing is descriptive and insightful. As this is a character driven novel, the plot is more introspective as Tilda tries to figure out why her mother did what she did. Hogan does a good job handling the thoughts and feelings of a child in the Tilly chapters, which contrast greatly with the adult Tilda chapters. In Tilly's chapters you can see the root of the OCD rituals that Tilda must do to feel safe. Clearly readers will know that Grace had some mental health issues which influenced her relationship with Tilly. Tilly's father, Stevie, is clearly adored by his daughter, but he is not well-developed for us to know why Grace felt she had to tell Tilly he died.

My feelings are all over the place on this novel. It started out strong enough to capture my attention. I enjoyed the Tilly chapters as a young child struggled to understand why her world had changed so much and why her beloved father was gone. Tilda is harder to warm up to but then the cause of her issues comes out through Tilly's chapters and Grace's journals. Then it became a bit bogged down in the middle and I became a wee bit weary of all the use of the "sightings." Hogan does leave us on a positive note with closure for Tilda and hope for a future, which helped set my misgivings aside.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Motion of the Body Through Space

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins: 5/19/20
eBook review copy; 352 pages 

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver is a very highly recommended novel confronting exercise obsession, aging, and the expectations to conform to ever changing arbitrary  societal views.

Serenata Terpsichore and Remington Alabaster have been married for 32 years and have two children that have been a disappointment. They recently moved to Hudson, N.Y., after Reminton lost his DOT civil engineering job in Albany. Much to Serenata's surprise, Remington, at age 64, decides to take up running and plans to enter a marathon. Serenata, 60, has always been the runner, the one with an obsessive fitness routine in the family but, after years of use, her knees are now arthritic, ruined, and she's looking at joint replacement surgery. Remington embraces his new exercise routine with a cult-like fanaticism that eventually results in his hiring a trainer named Bambi to help him train for the Lake Placid MettleMan Triathlon. Bambi treats Serenata with disdain - and the feeling is very mutual.

We should probably get one fact out in the open right at the start. I admire Lionel Shriver for her incredible talent and for her stating her unabashed opinion on any and all of the absurd cultural phenomena raging about us. For me she was, as usual, right on topic, observant, clever, and fearless while tackling the opinions that are often suppressed or labeled with some derogatory term now. She is mainly focused on aging and the current cult of exercise, but she also covers long-term relationships, wokeness, offense culture, cultural misappropriation, identity politics, the Me-Too movement, marginalized people, virtue signaling, group-think, and the victim-hood culture.

Serenata and Remington are both well-developed characters that come to life in this novel. No, neither of them is depicted as a saint, but they are definitely realistic individuals with all their faults and foibles clearly on display. Both are succinct and outspoken with each other regarding their opinions. Although my knees are fine, I understand hitting the road block that aging can set before you, so it was clear that they were at odds with their approach to facing it. After exercising on her own with her own routines for years, Serenata had little choice but to accept a more sedentary life, while Remington obsessively took on a monumentous goal that was at odds with her current situation.

The writing is incredible, both precise and flawless. Shriver always uses the absolutely perfect word to describe what she means. She also manages to capture the absurdity of situations and encounters with humor and sarcasm mixed in to the reality. All of the characters may be slightly exaggerated but this is much better to compare and contrast them. They also serve as the perfect vehicle for Shivers prose and opinions. This is an absolutely wonderful novel that could spark some intense discussions at any book club.
I personally saved many quotes from The Motion of the Body Through Space, but want to mention a couple that hit home for me:
"I think what grates about these abruptly ubiquitous expressions.... Meaning, suddenly everyone says it.... It’s just, people throwing around fashionable lingo think they’re so hip and imaginative. But you can’t be hip and imaginative. You can be unhip and imaginative, or hip and conformist."
"She was too content by herself, and had sometimes wondered if not getting lonely was a shortcoming."
"I dislike her personally. As an individual. Is that possible anymore? Is it legal to harbor animosity toward a specific person who just happens to belong to a 'marginalized community'?"
"What has not changed - what has always been the case with human beings - is that 'feelings' are no more factually sacrosanct than any other form of testimony. So you can 'argue with what people feel.' Because people lie about what they feel. They exaggerate what they feel. They describe what they feel poorly, sometimes out of sheer verbal inadequacy. They mistake one feeling for another. They often have no idea what they feel. They will sometimes mischaracterize their emotions with an eye to an ulterior motive - "

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.