Friday, August 28, 2020

Road Out of Winter

Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine
MIRA: 9/1/20
review copy; 320 pages

Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine is a very highly recommended wintery dystopian noir.

Wylodine (Wil) has a way with growing things, which has come in handy since she has been left behind on her own to grow the family marijuana crop on the Appalachian Ohio farm on. Two years previously her mother left for California with her boyfriend Lobo who owns the farm and the illegal business. Wil's life has been one of poverty, struggling, and paranoia. Now that spring, let alone summer, hasn't returned for the second year in a row, it seems that her world is only one of an endless winter now. Things look especially bleak because her friend Lisbeth is leaving town with The Church headed for some place warmer. So when Wil receives a postcard from her mother, she decides to set off to California. She ends up taking along two young men she rescued and the three set off with grow lights and supplies packed up in a truck and hauling Wil's small trailer house. The road is not safe, however, dangers abound and they encounter more than one cult on their freezing desolate journey.

Wil's paranoia serves her well and she exhibits an awareness, inner strength, and self-control that serve her well on her travels. The times are uncertain (much like they are now) and the road is risky, but Wil handles it all with intelligence and determination. She is a great hero and you will find yourself wanting the best for her, even though that wish is far from ensured. All the characters are guarded with their personal information, but perhaps during the end of the world paranoia will be the norm.

This is an absolutely compelling, un-put-down-able novel. I kept saying just one more chapter right up until the end. The writing is intelligent, adept, and atmospheric. This is a great story of making a family with those around you. I appreciate that beyond the content of a few conversations characters have, there are no lengthy lectures about climate change and environmental issues. Stine is smart enough to allow her plot to speak for itself rather than hitting readers over the head with a lecture. That keen sensibility in writing the dialogue and presenting her plot serves her very well. And even though this is a dystopian, there is poignancy and ultimately hope even as humanity may be facing its demise. This is a contender for one of the best books of 2020.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R Sloan
HarperCollins: 9/1/20
review copy; 448 pages

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R Sloan is a so-so story about the rise and fall of a pop girl group and the suicide of one of the members.

In 1999, Cassidy Holmes came in second place on a singing competition show before being added as the fourth member of the pop girl group Gloss. Cassidy becomes "Sassy Gloss," joining founding members Rose (Rosy), Merry (Cherry), and Yumi (Tasty). The group rose rapidly in fame for their music and infamy for the drama following them, gaining fans until the group’s sudden implosion in 2002. In the present time Rose, Merry, and Yumi are doing a radio interview when they learn of Cassidy's death and are all shocked. They had lost close contact with her after the split, but after learning her death was a suicide they are now wondering if there was anything they could have done to help her.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time and follows the point-of-view of all four members of the Gloss. The remaining members of the group examine their relationship with Cassidy and the insanity of their years of fame as well as the secrets the girls shared with each other. The dark side of celebrity is clearly portrayed, both the excesses and the people who used them. The novel explores Cassidy's depression, suicide and gives notice to readers that it includes several other triggers including sexual assault, body shaming, abuse, and body dysmorphia. (It's been pointed out the similarity with the Spice Girls.)

While I wanted to like this debut novel, it was a struggle. The characters are underdeveloped and not well defined as individuals so it is difficult to connect with them or at the beginning to even tell their different points-of-view apart  (except for Rose). There are also a lot of missing years and things that should have been more fully explored. Adding to the struggle is the glacially slow pace at the start, which, when combined with the sort of easy-to-read YA vibe the whole novel emits throughout, made it a struggle for me to continue reading. While it does have a message, don't go into it expecting the same quality and depth as Daisy Jones & the Six. Clearly I wasn't the target audience for this book.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage by Dan Crenshaw
Grand Central Publishing: 4/7/20
review copy; 256 pages

Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage by Dan Crenshaw is a very highly recommended discourse about the American spirit and perseverance in the face of divisive mob politics.

Dan Crenshaw's life story is truly one of fortitude and finding the inner strength and endurance to overcome any adversity one faces. In 2012, on his third tour of duty as a Navy SEAL, an improvised explosive device left his right eye destroyed and his left blinded. Only through the careful hand of his surgeons, and what doctors called a miracle, did Crenshaw's left eye recover partial vision. After this he continued to persevere and face the challenges and hurdles before him. Personally, once Dan Crenshaw came to my attention, I have been impressed by this young man, his outlook on life, and the lessons he could teach young men and women today. This book covers his life story, but more importantly he shares his personal outlook on life and the American spirit. During this time of the outrage culture, with the weaponization of uncontrolled and unfounded emotion and the lack of real reasoning, research and facts, it gives me hope to see a young man who does approach life and political discourse with stillness and thoughtful, rational, objectivity.

He says: These lessons will make you mentally stronger, better equipped to face life’s challenges, and as impervious as possible to the outrage culture all around us. The basic message is this: If you’re losing your cool, you are losing. If you are triggered, it is because you allowed someone else to dictate your emotional state. If you are outraged, it is because you lack discipline and self-control. These are personal defeats, not the fault of anyone else. And each defeat shapes who you are as a person, and in the collective sense, who we are as a people. This book is about actively hardening your mind so that you can be the person you think you should be. It is about identifying who that person is in the first place, and taking responsibility for the self-improvement required to become them. It is about learning what it means to never quit. It is about the importance of building a society of iron-tough individuals who can think for themselves, take care of themselves, and recognize that a culture characterized by grit, discipline, and self-reliance is a culture that survives. A culture characterized by self-pity, indulgence, outrage, and resentment is a culture that falls apart. It really is that simple,

As I was reading I highlighted so many passages in Fortitude that it would be impossible to share all the memorable parts and important points presented. This was exactly the book I needed to read at this time. Honestly, I have been depressed over everything happening and sharing the lessons he learned from Admiral Stockdale about the Stoics and the concept of stillness spoke directly to my heart. Stillness is not a denial of reality; it makes it possible to deal with reality. It is a source of power. The power to honestly assess what is in your control and what is not. We are all responsible for what we can control, so keep the emotions in check, examine things intelligently, do the research and most importantly be resilient in the face of the irrational extremism and hostility. Honestly, everyone who is jumping to quick conclusions and forming an opinion about anything based on a misleading headline or meme or quip on social media without learning the relevant facts is only indicative of their own lack of care and self-defeating actions.

The story of America's founding based on the best and most promising ideals of humankind is the one we should be sharing, not victimhood and violent outrage. We need to embrace the fact that we are blessed to live here.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Every Kind of Wicked

Every Kind of Wicked by Lisa Black
Kensington: 8/25/20
review copy; 320 pages
Gardiner and Renner Series #6

Every Kind of Wicked by Lisa Black is a very highly recommended procedural and 6th in the Gardiner and Renner Series.

Forensics expert Maggie Gardiner and Cleveland homicide detective Jack Renner with his partner Thomas Riley are investigating the murder of a young man found dead in the Erie Street Cemetery. What was at first assumed to be a single gunshot, isn't, which makes the homicide odd and the weapon used unique. The only clue on the body is a key card to an apartment at the local university’s student housing. The victim is identified as Evan Harding and while at his apartment, Evan's girlfriend, Shanaya Thomas shows up. Shanaya lies about Evan work place, A to Z Check Cashing, and seems to be evasive and withholding information.  

At the same time Maggie's detective ex-husband, Rick, is at another murder scene that appears to be an obvious overdose. The deceased is identified as Marlon Toner, but when they talk to his sister Jennifer at the address on his ID, it seems that the man is not Marlon Toner. But Jennifer has her own concerns and has been trying to investigate the doctor who has been prescribing her brother so many opioids. Suddenly it is clear that the investigations are interconnected and the case is more complicated than originally thought.

The solid plot is compelling and fast moving. The complicated investigation takes several unexpected turns and it is a pleasure to follow along as the clues are presented and leads followed. The operation/scheme that the investigation leads to is a timely subject matter and for some a personal experience that will have readers everywhere cheering on the detectives (and perhaps hoping for a permanent, violent resolution). There is also a personal investigation Rick is undertaking that started in previous books in the series. This concerns Maggie while Jack is claiming it will be a non-issue.

This is a great series and it is a pleasure to be back in the world of these well-known and well-developed characters. I was so happy to open Every Kind of Wicked and experience another investigation with Gardiner and Renner.  Longtime fans know the players here and their backstories, which does add a depth and richness to the story, but you could easily read this novel as a standalone. Any references to past events are explained enough that you won't feel lost.

I enjoyed this procedural and being back in the world of these characters so much, it was a pleasure to read Every Kind of Wicked.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

No Woods So Dark as These

No Woods So Dark as These by Randall Silvis
Sourcebooks: 8/4/20
review copy; 448 pages

No Woods So Dark as These by Randall Silvis is a very highly recommended procedural and the fourth book in the Ryan DeMarco Series.

Ryan DeMarco, former Sergeant with the Pennsylvania State Police, and Jayme Matson, a former State Trooper, have earned a break. The two have decided to take time off to recover from the horror and devastation of their last case, including the loss of their unborn child. Their goal is for a peaceful life while they both recover mentally and emotionally. That goal is shattered when Ryan's old boss Capt. Kyle Bowen requests their help in the investigation of a horrendous crime scene. Two bodies are burned beyond recognition in a car while nearby a man is impaled with rebar to a tree. The leads take them into the world of a drug dealer. While they are helping to uncover clues and track down the main suspect, there is information a former colleague is trying to hint at that must be figured out and their old nemesis Daksh Khatri is clearly targeting both of them.

No Woods So Dark as These is absolutely riveting and held my rapt attention from beginning to end. The characters are well-developed and portrayed as very complex, humane, intelligent individuals. I loved everything about them. They are both in a pensive, reflective mood in the novel and are trying to leave the darkness of all their previous investigations and life experiences behind while looking for a peaceful existence and healing. They are both good people who have been conscripted into another investigation full of horror, lies, scheming, fear, and subterfuge. It will warm the hearts of dog lovers everywhere when they adopt a puppy and set about naming him. Not only does it lighten the darkness, it is endearing.

The plot is very well paced and the short chapters keep the narrative moving, making the investigation, clues, and action easy to follow. The story can be dark due to the nature of the case they are following as well as the people and the clues. This is a case that requires the careful, watchful experience of seasoned investigators who are used to uncovering clues and facts that people are desperate to keep hidden. The ending is a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping moment.

The four books in the Ryan DeMarco Mystery Series are: Two Days Gone (Book 1); Walking the Bones (Book 2); A Long Way Down (Book 3); and No Woods So Dark as These (Book 4). You can read this final book as a stand-alone, but, after lamenting your poor choices in life, you will want to immediately go back and read the first three leading up to the fourth.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks via Netgalley.

Do Her No Harm

Do Her No Harm by Naomi Joy
Head of Zeus: 8/20/20
review copy; 288 pages

Do Her No Harm by Naomi Joy is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

One night five years earlier Tabitha (Tabby) Rice disappeared without a trace. She's presumed murdered, but there are no clues as to who could be responsible, beyond her husband, Rick Priestley. Rick claimed to be innocent and there is no proof he did anything. Annabella (Bella) was Tabby's best friend and she knows there is more to the story. She's been looking into Tabby's past trying to uncover proof that Rick did something, but to no avail. Bella knows that Tabby suspected Rick was having an affair and she is determined to dig up dirt on him. When podcaster Kay Robero talks to her, the two begin to work together.

The narrative jumps around in time from the present day, to 5 years earlier, before Tabitha disappeared, and even back 20 years when Rick met Tabitha. The story is told through Tabby, Bella, and Rick's point-of-view. There are also bits of Kay's true crime podcasts. Once the narrative gets moving, it quickly becomes clear that there is more going on than is being revealed and readers will be leery to trust any of the characters. The plot is a little slow paced, but that does serve to build up suspense that something is going to happen and some twist must be in sight. Patience with the pace will be rewarded in the end, but I'd be untruthful if I said it was gripping or a thrill-ride until near the very end of the book.

While the plot through most of the novel is pedestrian, the characters make the story interesting. These are all flawed and, well, odd people who are not likeable or trustworthy. They all have secrets and as with any good thriller it is the secrets and the feeling that all is not as it seems that will keep you reading. You do have to get to the last fifth of the novel before things really become tense and nail-biting leading up to the conclusion. What was a solid 3 star rating jumped to 4.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Head of Zeus.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Best of Friends

The Best of Friends by Lucinda Berry
Thomas & Mercer: 8/18/20
review copy; 284 pages

The Best of Friends by Lucinda Berry is a highly recommended drama that follows three families after a tragedy.

In a wealthy southern California neighborhood best friends Lindsey, Kendra, and Dani are devastated after a tragic incident with a gun involving their three sons, Jacob, Sawyer, and Caleb. The teens were having a sleepover which resulted in the death of Kendra's son, Sawyer, and left Lindsey's son Jacob in a coma. Dani's son Jacob was not shot, but is uncommunicative but has nightmares and breakdowns. Do they really know each other and their sons? Is their friendship going to withstand the tragedy and resulting investigation?

Alternating chapters are told from each woman's point-of-view as they try to deal with the tragedy and figure out what happened and why. Everyone has secrets, shortcomings, and questions which, as they are revealed, put a strain on relationships. Detective Martin Locke questions the couples and their other children, but they all know he is keeping some information to himself (obviously).

The plot is well done, creating tension and questions, as these women face the nightmare their lives has become. The Best of Friends is a straightforward story. It is focused on these three women after a tragedy involving their sons and the disclosure of secrets involving each family and their sons. This isn't a thriller. We aren't looking for a suspect. We're looking for answers as to why this incident happened.

 Berry slowly provides clues and reveals secrets about the night and the teens.  The writing does have some flaws. The individual voices of the three women are not as distinctive as clearly defined as individuals as I would have liked. Reading did require paying close attention to who was talking to avoid confusion. The characters are portrayed more like caricatures rather than complex unique individuals. The plot, however, and seeking out the truth about that night is what will keep you glued to the pages.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Blood World

Blood World by Chris Mooney
Penguin Random House: 8/18/20
review copy; 448 pages

Blood World by Chris Mooney is a highly recommended crime novel that takes place in the future.

It was discovered that some people carry an enzyme in their blood that makes cells produce an incredible amount of energy, which in turn helps the carriers fight off disease. A transfusion of carrier blood may also reduce aging, cure disease, and increase the sex drive. Now carriers have to be on the lookout for those who may want to kidnap them for their blood. Kidnapped carriers may either be immediately killed for their blood or be held captive at blood farms where they are forced to give their blood which is then sold. Ellie Batista became an LAPD officer in hopes of getting a spot on the Blood squad to help fight the Blood Crimes that are taking place.

During an investigation, Ellie and her partner are ambushed at what appears to be a house that is somehow involved with the blood trade. As a result of the bloody ambush, Ellie is offered a position where she will take on a new identity and go undercover, infiltrating the blood world. Ellie is ready for whatever happens because, unknown to everyone, as a child she had her twin brother, who was a carrier, kidnapped.

The narrative alternates between Ellie (Faye Simpson when undercover) and Sebastian Kane. Sebastian is in charge of a huge undercover operation in the blood world. His blood transfusion product is named Pandora and is well-known to be the best. At the ambush Ellie was at, his stepson Paul was involved, and that is the beginning of sort of a blood turf war between the two. Paul has discovered a way to increase the potency of a carrier's blood and he has plans to take over. While Ellie/Faye is trying to uncover more information about the blood trade, Paul is out to kill Sebastian and take over or undermine his blood empire.

The tension is palpable in this crime novel and it will hold your attention from beginning to end. The crime/thriller part of the novel works very well. I was glued to the pages. The characters may not be completely likeable or relatable at all, but you will want to know what happens next. And the action keeps coming while the threats are mounting. What wasn't quite as well done was the world building, especially concerning the enzyme the carriers have and how it was discovered, how the blood trade evolved. As a hard science fiction fan, I wanted more information and kept expecting it to be provided, but, alas, the information slowly provided wasn't very detailed and I was left wanting more. I enjoy crime novels too, but if you are going to add a science fiction element, then use it. But, the whole undercover operation is so well done, and the action surprised me several times, so all in all Blood World is a winner.

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


Sunday, August 16, 2020

My Lies, Your Lies

My Lies, Your Lies by Susan Lewis
HarperCollins: 8/11/20
review copy; 416 pages

My Lies, Your Lies by Susan Lewis is a recommended novel of intrigue that morphs into a family drama.

Joely is a ghost writer who assists other people in telling their story, so it is a surprise to her when she is hired by a well-known writer, Freda Donahue, to be a ghost writer for her. Freda apparently has a story she wants to tell to set the record straight and she hand-picked Joely to do the job. It is clear from the start that Freda is an odd, eccentric woman who has an arrogant, condescending attitude. The story she wants to have Joely write is set in 1968 and is about a fifteen-year-old girl who had an affair with her twenty-five-year old teacher. Joely wants to escape her home life right now anyway because it is in turmoil.

My Lies, Your Lies started off strong and once it got going it grabbed my attention. The tension was palpable and I was glued to the pages. Then something switched off in the writing and the novel morphed into a completely different story, one that was neither gripping nor compelling. There was a place in the novel where, if Lewis had changed her direction and came to a conclusion, I would have rated it five stars. Instead, she headed off in an insipid, unbelievable direction and lost my interest in the last 20% of the novel. The impact the novel could have had was lost in a fluffy ending. The writing was mostly good and the characters well-developed so I'm recommending it, with the warning that the ending will work for some readers and not for others.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Vesper Flights

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
Grove/Atlantic: 8/25/20
review copy; 288 pages

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald is a very highly recommended collection of 41 essays and meditations on the natural world. This is a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep.

As she writes: I hope that this book works a little like a Wunderkammer. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder. and... Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.

Vesper Flights fulfills her hope admirably. The essays are written in a poetic manner with an insight, clarity, and descriptiveness that immediately pulls you into seeing the natural world through her eyes and perhaps alter the way you currently look at the natural world. Humans tend to anthropomorphize the natural world rather than trying to viewing it realistically. Macdonald's descriptions and insight help assist in creating a true picture of the subject while providing insight into both the animal and human world. The writing is wonderful and the tone she sets helped bring a peaceful calm feeling to the forefront during a stressful time.

Contents include:  An Introduction; Nest; Nothing Like a Pig; Inspector Calls ; Field Guides; Tekels Park; High-Rise; The Human Flock; The Student’s Tale; Ants; Symptomatic; Sex, Death, Mushrooms; Winter Woods; Eclipse; In Her Orbit; Hares; Lost, But Catching Up; Swan Upping; Nestboxes; Deer in the Headlights; The Falcon and the Tower; Vesper Flights; In Spight of Prisons;  Sun Birds and Cashmere Spheres; The Observatory; Wicken; Storm; Murmurations; A Cuckoo in the House; The Arrow-Stork; Ashes; A Handful of Corn; Berries; Cherry Stones; Birds, Tabled; Hiding; Eulogy; Rescue; Goats; Dispatches from the Valleys; The Numinous Ordinary; What Animals Taught Me; Acknowledgements.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove/Atlantic.

Still Here

Still Here by Amy Stuart
Gallery Books: 8/11/20
review copy; 320 pages
Still series #3  

Still Here by Amy Stuart is the highly recommended psychological thriller and third book in the Still series.

Clare O'Dey (O'Kearney) is working with Detective Somers and looking for Malcolm. He has disappeared and no one knows where or why. Clare travels to the oceanside city of Lune Bay to look for clues as to Malcolm's whereabouts and that of his missing wife, Zoe Westman. Malcolm is a suspect in Zoe's disappearance, but it appears that Zoe's wealthy family might be more likely to have something to do with it. Clare begins to look into Zoe's family business and the murder of her father years ago. The entire community of Lune Bay seems to be hiding something. There are two young women who went missing from there, but no one seems concerned beyond Somers and the father of one woman. At the same time she is still hiding from her abusive husband Jason and is always wary he will find her.

This is one series that it would be beneficial to read the whole Still series in order: Still Mine, Still Water, and Still Here. I missed the first, read the second and now the third, and I have to admit I enjoyed Still Here more because I had read Still Water. I knew Clare, Somers and Malcolm and this time around I actually liked Clare much more as a character and felt she was well-developed. Of course, this could be because I had met her previously. Knowing background information made this an compelling thriller with a plot that stayed interesting from start to finish. It could be due to the fact that Clare is in danger this time, which ups the unease and nervousness while you read.

The plot is strong in Still Here. Clare is intuitively following clues she uncovers from a variety of people she encounters and even finds a few allies in her investigation. There is a lot of tension because we know in the beginning that Clare is going to be hurt and in a desperate situation. Then the narrative jumps back to four days earlier and follows the action leading up to the incident described in the opening. There are so many secrets and half-truths being shared with Clare and she needs to untangle what is true and where that clue leads. The resolution is very satisfying this time and I was glad I read this third novel in the series.

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Somewhere in the Dark

Somewhere in the Dark by R. J. Jacobs

Crooked Lane Books: 8/11/20
review copy; 289 pages

Somewhere in the Dark by R. J. Jacobs is a highly recommended psychological thriller/mystery.

Jessie Duval's life is finally on the path to recovery. She is living in Nashville, has an apartment, sees a therapist she likes, and enjoys her prep job with a catering company. After a childhood of abuse and neglect, which included a year living in the dark in a locked closet, she is learning coping skills to overcome her issues. The one rule she must legally follow is to stay away from singers Owen and Shelly James. Jessie was obsessed with them for a reason and followed their concert tour for a year, but after therapy she understands what happened and has changed. Although she is still fragile, she is now doing well for herself.

Jessie just likes prep work, but her boss convinces her she will do a fine job serving at a graduation party after his help quits. Shelly James shows up at the party with Owen and their daughter, and Jessie tries to keep out of their sight. Subsequently, when the James's hire their catering company for a party, Jessie knows she should stay away, but she is finally talked into doing the job by a surprising source. After the party, when Shelly turns up dead, Jessie is a suspect, but there is a whole lot more going on than people realize and Jessie may have the key to who did it.

The narrative starts slowly as Jessie, her problems, and her background are introduced and explained. Since Jacobs is a psychologist, he delves into her trauma, background, thought processes, anxiety, and coping mechanisms resulting in Jessie being a sympathetic character that you will trust and feel supportive of her recovery. She is very observant and, although broken, she is in many ways also stronger than people realize. Jessie is a great character to build a story on because you want her to to be safe and continue on the path to wellness.

The novel is well-written, with several strengths and a few weaknesses. Obviously, the creation of the character of Jessie is a strength. She is a captivating character and she does carry most of the plot. Some of the supporting characters are not as fully realized, but it doesn't affect the plot negatively as the action starts and keeps moving. After the slow set up the plot takes off at a brisk pace once Jessie starts searching for answers. Everything quickly reaches a breakneck speed up to the twisty, surprising climax. The conclusion is uplifting and hopeful, which is a winning way to end the narrative.

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

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Until I Find You

Until I Find You by Rea Frey
St. Martin's Publishing: 8/11/20
review copy; 320 pages

Until I Find You by Rea Frey is a recommended domestic thriller.

Rebecca (Bec) Gray is nearly blind with a degenerative eye disease. She is also a recent widow, a new mother, and then her mother passed away after she came to live with her. To say her life has been stressful is an understatement, but Bec is managing to get by. Her photographic memory helps her to count steps and remember the number she takes to reach various things and places. She continues to meet friends for coffee, takes walks, and meets friends at the park. The only problem is that she feels like someone is watching her. It also appears that someone is getting into her house. But when she is sure that someone has switched babies and the one she has now is not her son Jackson, no one is certain she is correct. Bec must rely on her own instincts to find out what happened to Jackson and bring him home.

The search for Jackson is tense and Bec is portrayed as a strong woman who is facing the adversity head on, even when it is thought that she may be suffering from a psychological disorder. Her friends can't tell if the baby she now has is Jackson or not. The police don't believe her either. After a slow start, the plot picked up and held my attention. Frey does do an excellent job portraying a capable woman with a visual impairment. This is in some ways more of a domestic drama combined with a romance, although there is a mystery included. I'm not a fan of the ending, but it does provide a fitting conclusion to the narrative.

So, I feel a little sheepish admitting that I didn't care for the characters of Bec and her friends almost from the start and they all seemed the same. Perhaps it was the obvious depiction that this is how the wealthy young mothers live and I certainly didn't know people liked this when I was a young mother - Nannys, plenty of time for walks, trips to the park, a support group, going out for coffee, attending a neighborhood party, make plans to redo the house... Yeah, you could do some of that with a three month old, but not as easily as described. And why didn't Bec accept help as soon as she thought someone was stalking her and going into her house? Then once she thought someone had switched babies, uh, blood tests people. Jackson's blood type would already be on record. If that was the same blood type, then genetic tests are available. It also seemed that her fainting spells and panic attacks were too convenient a plot device. Okay, I liked the novel, but I didn't love it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillan.

The Quiet Girl

The Quiet Girl by S. F. Kosa
Sourcebooks: 8/11/20
review copy; 384 pages

The Quiet Girl by S. F. Kosa is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Alex Zarabian knew it was love at first sight when he met his new wife, Mina Richards, at a book signing. Now the two have had a disagreement and Alex arrives in Provincetown to make amends to Mina. He is surprised to find Mina absent from her cottage and her wedding ring in a bowl on her desk. Alex searches for her and then files a missing person report to the police, who believe she left on her own. Alex, though, is certain that Mina had a secret and he needs to discover it to find her. While looking for Mina, Alex encounters Layla, a young woman who may have information, but one who also can't recall her own past. Alex needs to discover what Layla knows in order to find Mina.

The novel follows two different storylines. One is Alex's first person account of his search for Mina and the other is Layla's story, a woman who is suffering from memory loss and facing a murderer. The two dueling narratives are presented in alternating chapters and appear to be two different realities. The novel does start out slow and the interjections of Alex's stress and problems at work while he is looking for Mina seem to be an unnecessary distraction. Once the story picks up the pace and the more information about Mina's past Alex uncovers, however, the novel becomes more complicated and begins to grab your attention.

This is truly a complicated psychological thriller where the end game will be hard to guess. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered and shocking revelations that will be exposed along the way. The whole novel is a twisty tale of secrets, deception, lies, and excuses that need to be uncovered to figure out what is really happening.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.


Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar
Knopf Doubleday: 8/11/20
review copy; 416 pages

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar is a very highly recommended true story of a religious forgery and a scandal.

The story starts in 2012 when Dr. Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, announced at a conference the discovery of an ancient fragment of papyrus on which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene "my wife." If true, a married Jesus would change the 2,000 year history of Christianity. King titled her discovery "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife," which served to provoke Biblical scholars and threaten traditions. Debates over the small scrap of papyrus raged as its authenticity was brought into question. Author and journalist Ariel Sabar set out to investigate the mystery of where the manuscript originated. His search is a detective story in its own rights as he traced it back to rural Florida and an internet pornographer. This is the story of what happens when a scholar decides that the story she wants to believe is more important than the actual truth.

The account is in two parts. The first details how King came to learn about the manuscript, her background, and the events from her shocking announcement to her fall and retraction after carbon dating and an article by Sabar. The second half has the author becoming part of the narrative as he finds the owner of the forgery, Walter Fritz. He searches for and follows the provenance of the manuscript, uncovering the questionable authenticity as well as other irregularities in the experts King used. He also finds information that may point to at least part of the motivation behind King's original decision to look at the small scrap of papyrus. This is a well-researched and documented true life detective story about a forgery that fooled a scholar, but it also examines the motivations of all the people involved.

One central fact which emerged is that King allowed the social impact of what she wanted to believe was real blur her search for truth and authenticity. Even things she should have questioned or reserved judgement about were overlooked for the story she wanted to be true. "Her ideological commitments were choreographing her practice of history. The story came first; the dates managed after. The narrative before the evidence; the news conference before the scientific analysis; the interpretation before the authentication. Her rich sense of what Christianity might be - if only people had the right information - too often preceded the facts." This is a fascinating account of a forgery and scandal. It is lengthy and can be a slow read at times simply due to the amount of research, facts, and information Sabar has included in the account.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The River Home

The River Home by Hannah Richell
HarperCollins: 8/4/20
review copy; 368 pages

The River Home by Hannah Richell is a highly recommended character-driven family drama.

The Sorrell girls are all returning to their mother's Somerset country home called Windfalls for a last-minute wedding.  "Lucy, the bride, has begged her loved ones to attend - not telling them that she has some important news to share once they’ve gathered. Her prodigal baby sister, Margot, who left home after a devastating argument with their mother, reluctantly agrees, though their family home is the site of so much pain for her. Meanwhile, their eldest sister, Eve, has thrown herself into a tailspin planning the details of the wedding - anything to distract herself from how her own life is unraveling - and their long-separated artist parents are forced to play the roles of cheerful hosts through gritted teeth." Honestly, with a description like this what could possibly go wrong?

There are several mysteries/questions/secrets that need to be answered in this complex family drama. Exactly what was the horrible event that happened to Margot and why does she need to apologize to her romance-writing mother, Kit? What is Lucy's secret? What is going on in Eve's marriage? How will their parents, Kit and Ted, react? Richell expertly gets all the players and pieces described and in place and then leaves tantalizing clues about what will follow.

Chapters follow the present day preparations and drama while occasional chapters from the past explain the history of Kit and Ted's relationship and the painful secret that is the cause of Margot's estrangement and absence for eight years. There are an abundance of strong emotions and hurt in both mother and daughter that needs to be explained. The chapters from the past clearly show the pain that needs to be healed in all their lives today, but the chapters based on the current day also show relationships that need mending. This is a narrative that focuses on the intense relationships between sisters, mothers, and daughters.

The writing is excellent and the emotional turmoil of all the characters is clearly presented. All of the characters are all well developed and placed amidst the beautifully described, lush setting of Windfalls.  The setting is in stark contrast to the secrets, past and present, which will eventually be told. As a mother, I have to admit that Kit was a difficult character for me to like or relate to in any way. It seemed to me that Kit needed to do some introspective thinking and maybe also do some apologizing rather than just expecting an apology form Margot. That aside, I did want to know what happened to this family and was hopeful that there would be some healing between them.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Behind the Red Door

Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins
Atria Publishing; 8/4/20
review copy; 320 pages

Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins is a recommended, maybe, psychological thriller.

Fern Douglas, 32, is certain she recognizes a missing woman from Maine named Astrid Sullivan. When Fern sees Astrid's photo, she is sure she knew her when they were younger. Her husband thinks this is because Astrid was kidnapped twenty years ago, when she was fourteen, and the case, which occurred near Fern's hometown in New Hampshire, was widely publicized. Her incredible return was also across the news. As she starts to have nightmares about Astrid as a girl, Fern thinks she may hold the clue to Astrid's current whereabouts, because she also thinks her nightmares may be memories. Fern is going back to her hometown to help her father pack for his move to Florida. While there she plans to look into Astrid's disappearance years ago to see if it will provide clues to her memories/nightmares and perhaps lead to the location of Astrid today.

Fern's parents are a real piece of work. Her father is a psychologist who studies fear and fear responses who used Fern as an experimental subject for his research for her whole childhood. Fern's mother simple ignored her, treating her like a house guest. As a result of her parent's psychological and emotional abuse, Fern grew up starved for affection and traumatized. Throughout the plot are Fern's recollections of many of her father's experiments on her and her responses.

Now, the narrative is focused on Fern looking for answers about Astrid's kidnapping years ago and her memories surrounding it. Fern herself is a bundle of neuroses. She's paranoid, nervous, has ticks and spirals into obsessive thought patterns. Simply put, she's a difficult character to connect with, although most readers will feel great sympathy for her surviving such a traumatic childhood. There are two huge, overwhelming questions that totally detracted from the novel: Why didn't Fern's therapist encourage her to set boundaries with her father and stay away from him for her own mental health? and Why did Fern go to help her father pack? (Why would you help someone who put you through that abuse as a child? Why would you even allow them in your lives in any capacity?) I know, I know, Stockholm syndrome, dissociative disorders, codependency, traumatic bonding, etc., etc... Still, accepting she'd go back to "help" him is a huge part of the novel. Uh, NO.

My final thought is that this novel is predictable right from start to finish. I kept reading, expecting some sort of twist or surprise and, nope, I knew what was happening from the start and nothing altered that assessment. Two things kept me read: looking for the twist and the quality of the writing is good. Collins just needs to work on her plots in the future. 2.5 but I'm rounding up.

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

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Every Bone a Prayer

Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms
Sourcebooks: 8/4/20
review copy; 352 pages

Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms is a recommended novel full of magic realism about a young girl who is sexually abused. Misty, ten, her sister Penny, and her mom live in a trailer in an Appalachian Mountain holler. Her parents have separated. Misty is connected to everything that lives around her and loves to go to the creek to speak to every living thing there, but especially to the crawdads. When her neighbor William starts doing some hurtful things to her in the barn, she doesn't know how to handle it or what to do about it. And then there are the strange glass-like statues growing up out of the ground at the neighbors across the road.

This is a beautifully written descriptive novel, but it is also a heartbreaking coming-of-age novel. The novel came from a very emotional, personal place from the author and that shows in the raw emotions present in the raw undercurrents of fear and horror. In the end Misty is a survivor. While I admire many qualities in the writing and emotions of the narrative, I'm the odd reviewer who didn't love Every Bone a Prayer. The set up for the actual novel is very slow and lengthy. Additionally the magic, magic realism, animism, etc. distracted from the important message within the novel. She almost seems to be undergoing a dissociative state, but in her case it is a real separation from her body. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Bear Necessity

Bear Necessity by James Gould-Bourn
Scribner: 8/4/20
review copy; 320 pages

Bear Necessity by James Gould-Bourn is a highly recommended novel about a father and son overcoming their grief and rediscovering their love for each other.

Danny Malooley has become a single father to eleven-year-old Will after their wife/mother was tragically killed in a car crash a year earlier. Will hasn't uttered a word since the loss of his mother. Danny is trying to hold it all together and is behind on paying bills. He already knows he is in trouble when his landlord threatens to break his legs if he doesn't pay his back rent. When he then loses his construction job and can't find another job he knows his life is falling apart - until he saw some performers in the park and came up with a plan.

Danny buys a used panda costume and decides to become a dancing bear in the park, hoping for enough donations to make some money. Strangely and absurdly fate steps in and smiles at Danny. He meets Krystal, a pole-dancer, and begs for dancing lessons. While in costume he also saves Will from some bullies and Will opens up and talks to Danny without knowing it is his dad. Now Danny knows what is bothering Will, but Will doesn't know he is talking to his dad. And there is still the question of making enough money to pay the back rent.

This is a heart-warming, uplifting, feel-good, witty story about a father and son reconnecting that may be just what people need right now. It also is a testament to how friends can help and support each other during rough times. Danny's Ukrainian friend Ivan is a bright spot in the novel, as is the mouthy Krystal and Will's friend Mo. The plot itself is simple, as is the writing, and you know everything is going to turn out okay in the end because that is the kind of story Bear Necessity is written to be - refreshingly simple and delightful.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

The Weekend

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Penguin Random House: 8/4/20
review copy; 272 pages

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood is a recommended character study of three longtime friends.

Jude, Wendy, and Adele have all been friends for many years. They are now in their seventies and are reuniting over the Christmas holiday in Bittoes, not far from Sydney, at their late friend Sylvie's beach house. They are there to clean the beach house out for Sylvie's partner before it is sold. The group is quite diverse. Jude is a once-famous restaurateur; Wendy is an acclaimed author and intellectual; and Adele is a renowned, but unemployed, actress. The four friends had a lifelong relationship, but with Sylvie gone, the dynamics of the group has changed. They know how each other will react, but can they remain close now.

Adding to the tension is Wendy's seventeen-year-old dog, Finn, who is nearing the end of his life. Wendy had to bring him, but he is not appreciated by Jude, who had exact plans for what would be accomplished this weekend. Adele is just out for Adele and insists on doing what she wants. Jude, who has been the mistress of a married man for years, wants to get this weekend over with so she can meet Daniel. The weekend culminates with the disclosure of a long held hurtful secret.

The women are certainly sharply observed and described, although they are limited to almost stereotypes, with each woman fulfilling her prescribed role as an aging woman. I didn't always find the narrative humorous as much as tedious, with incredulity over their connection. The main question they are all asking internally and I was certainly asking aloud throughout the narrative was this: Why on earth are these women still friends with each other? They may have all loved Sylvie (for whatever reason, as it isn't clear why she would hold this diverse group together) but there is very little love between them. 

Currently living with an old dog nearing the end of his life (blind, deaf, in diapers, and he scrabbles around) I understood Wendy trying to give Finn the best end of his life time she could and I am sympathetic to her character. Jude and Adele were a different story. I did appreciated the commentary on aging and the exploration of what can be viewed as success and failure when one looks back at their life, but I'm not sure the emotional internal dialogue of each woman all the time was necessary. At the end I simply wondered why Wendy didn't set boundaries with the other two years before and, since I doubt they would have worked, why not end the tenuous friendship. I would have cut and run decades before this and certainly wouldn't be voluntarily spending a weekend cleaning out a friend's home with such disagreeable people. 

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

Little Threats

Little Threats by Emily Schultz
Penguin Random House: 11/10/20
review copy; 368 pages

Little Threats by Emily Schultz is a highly recommended whodunit and a psychological study of a family.

In the summer of 1993, privileged sixteen-year-old twin sisters Kennedy and Carter Wynn and their friend Haley Kimberson are pushing boundaries. Kennedy and Haley decide to party one night with twenty-one year old Berk Butler. Later that night Kennedy wakes up in the woods, looks for Haley, and finds her dead, murdered. Kennedy can't remember a thing from that night. Suspicions fall on her and Berk, but his testimony places guilt on her and she ends up just pleading guilty.

Now it is fifteen years later and Kennedy is being released. The world has moved on. Carter has grown distance, their father, Gerry, is trying too hard to protect family bonds and forget the past. Laine, her mother, died from cancer when Kennedy was in prison. Kennedy's return to the family home is bringing the case back to the surface and a true crime show is investigating the case to see if they can uncover who really killed Haley.

The story is told through three points-of-view: Kennedy, Carter, and Haley's brother, Everett. Carter and Everett have started a relationship, which is potentially fraught with trouble for both families and has questions arising about what really happened in 1993. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered because it seems clear that Kennedy's guilt is hardly a given. The secrets and hidden guilt of various people over a myriad of actions are slowly revealed in the narrative. As you read, guilt will jump from one character to another as a new secret is exposed or something else is remembered.

The story does start out slowly and as the plot unfolds, it is at a measured pace until the ending. The writing is good, but you need the patience to slowly follow the backstory of the individuals involved and their psychological state of mind. This is a portrait of two families in crisis, the Wynns and the Kimbersons, and how the murder affected them. Everyone has guilt over something and there is more than one suspect. The ending is a shocker, but you will recognize the clues and small details leading toward the guilty party.

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