Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg
10/27/20; 304 pages
Penguin Random House

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg is a very highly recommended retrospective visit with some of the characters from Whistle Stop, Alabama, made famous in the beloved Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987). The novel reminisces about the characters in the 1930s and follows the life of Bud Threadgoode and his daughter Ruthie up to the present. This delightful novel is like going home and visiting your extended family; it's a comfortable visit where we freely talk about the past and hear updates on what happened since.

The novel follows Bud Threadgoode, Penny, and their daughter Ruthie from the past, in the 1930s, up to the present. We get to read Dot Weems annual Christmas letter full of updates about former residents of Whistle Stop. We get stories from the past about Bud's mother, Ruth, and Idgie. We hear stories about Ninny Threadegoode again and Evelyn Couch meets Ruthie and Bud. There are stories about Opal, Sipsey, and Big George. The novel jumps around on the timeline between past and present, just as stories jump back and forth in time at any family reunion. Those who are fans are going to rejoice in this return to the citizens from Whistle Stop.

There is a plot, but it's found in the gentle storytelling following a life, past and present, leading up to the present day. This is a sweet visit to a group of cherished characters. The tone is accepting, positive, encouraging, and affirmative. Even during hard times and struggles, the positive is always there, something that is sorely missing right now. There is something so good-hearted and kind about this novel. In some ways it's presents a nice blueprint for people to follow during hard times. A positive attitude goes a long way during difficult times. These people with ties to Whistle Stop are good folks.

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

You Betrayed Me

You Betrayed Me by Lisa Jackson
10/27/20; 448 pages
Cahills #3

You Betrayed Me by Lisa Jackson is a highly recommended novel of suspense and the third book featuring a member of the Cahill family.

In the opening a woman has been tazed and left as a prisoner in a tiny house locked from the outside. James Cahill, an heir to the Cahill fortune, awakens in the hospital in Washington State. He's had a concussion and is bruised and beaten with obvious fingernail scratches down his cheek. He's in pain, medicated, and has no recollection of what happened that caused his hospitalization. He does have a vague recollection of his girlfriend, Megan Travers, and some argument. He learns that Megan has gone missing and he was the last person to see her. When a blond sneaks in to visit him, he doesn't recognize her at first. Then it comes to him that she is Sophia Russo, the woman he has been cheating with. Police are looking into his injuries while trying to find Megan. As their investigation continues and the media follows it, it is clear to everyone that James has a provable reputation as a serial Lothario. Then Megan's sister, Rebecca, shows up, trying to find clues to his sister's whereabouts. She was previously yet another girlfriend of James.

The first thing you need to know is that there are a vast number of serial romantic liaisons and encounters in this novel. The suspense does take the forefront, but, goodness, there was a bit too much of the other for me, someone who loves suspense but avoids romance novels. The second thing you need to know is that there really isn't a likeable character here. The third thing you need to know is that You Betrayed Me has a collection of odd characters, twisty happenings, and the feeling that no one can be trusted.

As mentioned, none of the characters are likeable or sympathetic. They are well-developed characters, but It's hard to feel a whole lot of compassion for James, a serial philanderer who has a hard time thinking with his brain. The woman are just as bad, but they are mostly a bunch of opportunists looking at the wealth James will inherit someday. Other characters include Detective Rivers, who has a sort of sixth sense he keeps quiet about, a journalist sure that this story will make her mark, an odd girl secretly spying on James and Sophia, and various towns people.

The writing is very good in this psychological thriller and the suspense created is what will keep you glued to the pages as you try to figure out exactly what is happening. Jackson keeps specifics to herself while slowly allowing more details to come out in the story, but pay careful attention to what she doesn't say and don't let implied facts slip you up. I'm giving this advice, but I got carried away with the story and didn't follow it. I played right into Jackson's hand and was surprised several times with the turns the story took.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Silence

The Silence by Don DeLillo
10/20/20; 128 pages

The Silence by Don DeLillo is a recommended novella about the death of technology.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2022 Max Stenner, his wife Diane Lucas who is a retired physics professor, and her former student Martin Dekker are watching the game and waiting in their Manhattan apartment for another couple, Jim Kripps and his wife, Tessa Berens, to arrive, fresh off their flight from Paris. When all the screens go blank on the flight, it becomes clear that the flight is in trouble. At the same time the grid goes down in Manhattan, rendering the Super Bowl moot. Kripps and Berens survive the crash landing and make it to the apartment through dark streets. There is a discussion about what has happened, but clearly this is a story about the final breakdown of society.

This is a very abbreviated novella with spare dialogue about the capacity of people to handle disaster when all our digital screens going blank and technology ends. Basically, The Silence will cause thoughtful readers to question their ability to survive without all their screens and constant connection to everything and everyone. The cause of this scenario is never explained, but in such a short work the idea is that should it happen, we wouldn't have information right away. There would be no way to find out what happened. We would suddenly have to connect with the people around us.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner .

Where I Come From

Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South by Rick Bragg
10/27/20; 256 pages
Knopf Doubleday

Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South by Rick Bragg is a very highly recommended collection of personal columns that originally were published in Southern Living and Garden & Gun. This is an absolutely wonderful diverse collection of personal stories and observations presented in Bragg's patented folksy charming manner. As you read you'll smile, laugh, feel nostalgic, and be left with a warm heart and a good feeling. During stressful times, this would be a perfect collection to read one or two columns at a time just to unwind and take a deep breathe before continuing your day.

The seventy plus columns are organized into nine different chapters or categories that are composed of columns which fit into the topic. Don't expect angry, combative, opinionated columns. As Bragg writes in the introduction: The stories in this collection are of the South’s gentler, easier nature. It is a litany of great talkers, blue-green waters, deep casseroles, kitchen-sink permanents, lying fishermen, haunted mansions, and dogs that never die, things that make this place more than a dotted line on a map or a long-ago failed rebellion, even if only in some cold-weather dream.

I enjoyed all of the columns immensely. As with all collections, some of the pieces will resonate with certain readers more than others, but I felt like they were all enjoyable or worthwhile reading. Even if you aren't from the South or have never even visited a Southern state, this compilation touches on several universal themes that can point to similar experiences in almost everyone's life, as well as experiences that are uniquely Southern. This would be an excellent gift.

Let me leave you with a thought about hot chicken from Bragg that had me doubled over in laughter: "It seemed like the kind of thing that could lead to questionable behavior. One day you order some hot chicken; the next morning you wake up with your belly button pierced and a picture of David Hasselhoff tattooed on your posterior. Point me to a prayer meetin’."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

House of Correction

House of Correction by Nicci French
10/27/20; 528 pages

House of Correction by Nicci French is a highly recommended legal thriller/drama.

Tabitha Hardy is accused of murder but she didn't do it - or did she? The body of her neighbor Stuart Rees was found fatally stabbed and wrapped up in a plastic sheet in her shed in Okeham, England. She is accused of the murder and is remanded to prison to await her trial. Years earlier, when she was fifteen, Rees was her secondary math teacher and sexually abused her. At that time she told no one, but she has suffered from the consequences of it ever since. Tabitha has been in a doctor's care and medicated as she suffers from debilitating depression. The day of the murder Tabitha was having a bad day and she really can't remember many events from the day.

When her court appointed counsel recommends Tabitha accept a plea, she fires her and sets out to represent herself in court. She doesn't understand how it works, but she is determined to wade through the evidence and discover what really happened that day, a day that she really can't remember. As the trial nears Tabitha has no real strategy, but she does have a timeline of what happened in the village that day and is determined to not let anyone railroad her.

Tabitha is a well developed-character, which has pros and cons in the narrative. Her rather prickly and combative personality combined with her depression can make her dislikeable over the course of 500 plus pages. That she is also a tenacious character who is determined to cast doubt over her guilt makes her awkwardly appealing when she takes on the prosecutors and the judge. She is totally stressed out but she is also astute and clever enough to catch problems and inconsistencies in the case against her.

The start of House of Correction is slow at the start so readers need to be encouraged to continue with it as it will become more interesting and the pace will pick up. British husband-and-wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, writing as Nicci French, do an admirable job with this novel, which starts out as a prison drama, morphs into a procedural, and then becomes a legal thriller. It all is done so smoothly you wont give it a second thought until you have dropped your mouth open over the twist and finished the novel. After that, you will likely be impressed with what they accomplished in this novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

My Favorites

My Favorites: A Collection of Short Stories by Ben Bova
10/13/20; 338 pages
Blackstone Publishing

My Favorites: A Collection of Short Stories by Ben Bova is a very highly recommended collection of fourteen of Bova's personal favorite short stories. All the stories in this collection have been previously published and for this compilation a brief introduction by Bova proceeds each story.  Fans will be reminded why they have enjoyed  Bova's writing for years and will appreciate and enjoy re-reading his favorite stories. New readers will enjoy this diverse introduction to Bova's writing and will likely be inspired to start reading his many novels and other short stories. As with all short story collections, some will resonate with individual readers more than others, but I though that over all it represents an excellent choice of diverse stories. This is a wonderful choice of stories by an award winning master writer.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Blackstone Publishing

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Invisible Girl

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell
10/13/20; 368 pages
Atria Books

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended psychological thriller.

Roan and Cate Fours have had some struggles in their marriage after he had an affair but hopefully that is all behind them now. Cate, a physiotherapist, works from home so she is there for their teenage children, Georgia and Josh, while Roan is a child psychologist. When Georgia phones her, nervous that a strange man is following her, it turns out to be Owen Pick, a thirty-three-year-old man who actually is a neighbor and lives across the street from the Fours. Owen immediately is profiled as a creep by the Fours. They suspect he is responsible for the recent assaults of local women. Owen is a computer science teacher who has recently been suspended following a complaint filed against him by two female students. He strongly denies the accusations. While awaiting the outcome of the investigation, Owen begins to spend time online on incel web forums and begins to follow a very vocal, charismatic moderator.

At the same time seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox is following Roan. She used to be a patient of his for her self harming, but he released her from his care saying she was no longer in need of his help. Saffyre knows that he released her without actually getting to the real truth about the trauma that occurred when she was ten, which was the cause behind her self-harming. Saffyre knows Roan is having multiple affairs as she has witnessed his actions as she hides in the shadows watching. She also knows where he lives and has watched his family. Then Saffyre disappears on Valentine’s night and Owen becomes the main suspect.

Invisible Girl is one engrossing, disturbing, atmospheric story that kept me glued to the pages. Jewell kept me hypothesizing while the complex and twisty plot quickly moved along. There are enough twists to keep you guessing. I was guessing and making predictions about what was really happening but all my initial assumptions were proven wrong. The connections between all the characters emerged and the misunderstandings and disturbing twists increased. These characters are all broken people in some way.

The writing is great as the narrative alternates between the point of view of Owen, Saffyre, and Cate. Each of the characters is portrayed as unique individuals and in the chapters they narrate you will know who is talking based on their distinctive character development. Owen is a surprisingly sympathetic, misunderstood character. Saffyre is a unique teenager, a loner with a unique, introspective personality. Cate is still struggling with her suspicions of Roan's faithfulness, but she is also full of self-doubt and doesn't want to look into anything deeper since she is afraid of the outcome. Josh also comes in as a notable character toward the end.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books .

Still Life

Still Life by Val McDermid
10/6/20; 436 pages
Karen Pirie #6

Still Life by Val McDermid is a highly recommended police procedural and the sixth novel in the Karen Pirie series.

A body with the skull was bashed in is discovered in Scotland’s Firth of Forth and the investigation identifies the body as James Auld, who left the country ten years earlier when he became a suspect in the disappearance of his older brother. The tie to the previous cold case means that  Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit is called in to investigate. Constable Jason Murray is left to continue the investigation the two were working on, skeletal remains found in a van parked in a Perth garage, and he promises frequent updates to Pirie. Pirie is assigned DS Daisy Mortimer to assist her.

This is a complicated novel following several investigations and narrative threads, which makes it a perfect read for those who enjoy procedurals and like to follow intricate investigations. These two cases are both perplexing and there is much more going on than meets the eye. To make matters even more emotional and troublesome, Pirie is have some relationship issues with her new boyfriend, Hamish Mackenzie, and the man responsible for the death of the love of her life is being released from prison.

McDermid will keep readers entertained throughout this procedural. The pace does seem a bit leisurely at times, but there is so much going on that the extended progress allows you to absorb what has been uncovered in all the areas of inquiry. Some aspects of the plot are more predictable than others, but the denouement cleverly wraps up all the story lines. With skill and competence McDermit keeps all the investigations running smoothly and follows the inquiries with equal interest. 

Karen Pirie is an intelligent, intuitive character with flaws, but it is always a pleasure to follow her along in the investigation. It is great to see Murray on the investigation and I'm hoping Daisy Mortimer is added to the team in the Historic Cases Unit. Readers new to the series will still be able to appreciate it without reading any of the previous Pirie novels, although the previous novels will give you much more background information - and are just as complicated and engrossing.

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

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Outlook for Earthlings

The Outlook for Earthlings by Joan Frank
10/2/20; 237 pages
Regal House Publishing

The Outlook for Earthlings by Joan Frank is a highly recommended poetic novel about the lifelong friendship between two women.

"The Outlook for Earthlings traces an unusual, difficult friendship across a lifetime, between women of stunningly opposite natures." Melanie Taper is timid, but she also has an innate insight into the human condition. It seems that she has hidden her inner strength from those around her. Scarlet is the exact opposite of Melanie. She is impetuous, determined, and passionate, so she is also often shocked by Melanie's passivity. The two cling to their friendship even though they don't understand each other and they each have their own separate needs. Their lack of accord results in each of them silently taking exception to the nature of the other oblivious to what they each need. Ultimately, it considers beginnings and endings, contemplates who ultimate measures the worth of their life, and the restraint of friendship.

The novel spans decades, starting in the 1960s to the 2000s with an epilogue in 2013. We meet Melanie and Scarlet as girls and touch base with them through adulthood. Frank perfectly and vividly captures the decades in various chapters. We know the thoughts of both women and their inner dialogues as we follow their lives and the decisions they make. We also see the compromises and concessions that they make, especially Melanie, as they work through their life and loves. The characters are both well-developed and accurately portrayed as individuals with very different personalities.

The writing in The Outlook for Earthlings is phenomenal, poetic, descriptive, and poignant. This novel is almost perfectly written to be read and shared in a women's book club because of the differences between these two women and their long-term, yet misunderstood, friendship with each other. During this time of political chaos and covid, where people are so polarized and not respecting the views and opinions of other people, a novel like this speaks to the heart of the matter. We can't know what someone thinks without talking to them, asking what they need, and then truly listening to them and accept their statements. We are all entitled to our own opinions and views, but we are not entitled to pin our ideas on others. Friends, real friends, will allow each other to be and believe. A book club could find fodder for discussions during more than one meeting here and perhaps even enlighten each other why others believe what they do. No spoilers, but there is a whole lot more going on that simply a difference of opinion in this touching novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Joan Frank and Regal House Publishing 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Attack Surface

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow
10/13/20; 384 pages

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow is a highly recommended tech thriller set in an alternate universe.

Masha Maximow is a counterterrorism programmer for an international cybersecurity firm. She programmed the hacks that allowed countries to spy on their citizens. She thought she was on the correct side but... She also sometimes for her own reasons uses her skill set to help the dissidents evade detection and tracking. When the targets of government tracking are citizens in a foreign country, Masha could easily compartmentalize how she was assisting the violent actions against citizens, but when the same technology is used against her friends, Masha is suddenly faced with a dilemma and must choose a side when no choice is without consequences.

The narrative follows Masha alternates between her present day relationship to a radical group in San Francisco and her past working for Xoth and Zyz. We can follow what she did in her job and how that translates into the real world and impinges on real life citizens of other countries and in her home. Masha's job helping spy on people and keeping track of their every move and their every contact and interaction with other extracts a steep toll.

Attack Surface is the third book in a series, following Little Brother and Homeland, but it can be read as a standalone novel set in the alternate universe created in these novels because Doctorow introduces new characters in this novel. The characters grapple with the integrity of using technology and surveillance to spy on and detain citizens based on their actions and beliefs. Those who followed the Edward Snowden controversy will appreciate the questions raised in this novel, a science fiction novel that is surely fact based. This is a technology heavy thriller, very technology heavy. I followed along only because I often have discussions involving many of the issues here with a programmer. (But I will admit to occasionally skimming some tech-heavy parts while following the action.) The heavy cybertech terminology and the tech-heavy vocabulary may lose some readers along the way as they lose track of the plot due to the vocabulary.

If you can overcome or understand the tech-vocabulary, the story is very captivating and extremely frightening. What will keep the pages turning in this compelling novel is the fact that this is fiction, but could easily become fact. It is a warning, of a sort, and Doctorow makes clear in his afterward what he thinks we should be concerned about and why. (I'm not overly crazy about authors preaching to me about what they think "I" should think, but I do like to keep informed and research information about everything. If an author points out information, I will take on researching it on my own, thank you.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tor/Forge .

They Never Learn

They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
10/13/20; 352 pages
Gallery/Scout Press

They Never Learn by Layne Fargo is a highly recommended revenge thriller.

Scarlett Clark is an English professor at Gorman University. Her other "job" is eliminating men who assault and rape women. The university system tends to ignore or excuse sexual assaults on campus and the professors who prey on young women. Scarlett doesn't. Every year she selects a man at Gorman who deserves to die for their actions and she meticulously plans out their murder. She has made every kill look like an accident or suicide and no one has been the wiser that she has targeted them for murder. Her last kill, a star football player, has drawn unwanted attention to that murder as well as past deaths on campus. Now  the psychology department chair Dr. Mina Pierce is looking for patterns in all the deaths.

Alternate chapters follow reserved freshman student Carly Schiller and her confident, outgoing roommate Allison Hadley. When Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly becomes obsessed with exposing the guilty man and seeking revenge after the medical clinic and the university don't take the claim seriously.

It is important to note that this isn't a novel about justice; it is a novel about revenge and a serial killer. And Scarlett may be seeking vigilante justice in her mind, but she is actually a sociopath and feels no guilt or compunction over her actions. She has no soul searching doubts about murdering her chosen victims. Now, if you can go with that, it is an entertaining, fast-paced novel with some twists (that you may see coming) and it will hold your attention to the end. It is a feminist novel taking on the campus rape culture by embracing a theme of revenge. The novel is set up as good versus bad, with all the males predatory and the females innocent. (While that can be the case sometimes, personally I believe that justice often can and does occur with the legal system.) Characters aren't all as well developed as I would like, but they are interesting. 

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

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Cutting Place

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey
4/3/20; 400 pages
Maeve Kerrigan, Book 9

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey is a very highly recommended procedural and the ninth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series.

When a severed human hand is found by a mudlarker by the Thames River in London, DS Maeve Kerrigan and her partner DI Josh Derwent are called out and looking at the area where the hand was found as well as the subsequent other various small parts of a body. The team is lucky when a DNA match is found. The dead woman was identified as 28 year old Paige Hargreaves, a freelance journalist. Now the investigative story Paige was working on may provide clues to what happened to her and why. It seems that Paige was secretly looking into something that was happening at the Chiron Club, an exclusive, elite men's club run by Sir Marcus Gley. This club is not only private, but is comprised of only wealthy, privileged, powerful men. Members include heads of companies, politicians, and legal dignitaries. Investigating the club and determining what Paige discovered involves a labyrinth of clues and secrets.

There is a secondary storyline that takes place two years earlier. It follows a wild party out at a country house and a young man wakes up after a wild, uncontrolled night of partying, to find evidence that he is in a world of trouble. A third narrative thread follows a secret Kerrigan is keep from everyone, including Derwent. He already doesn't like or trust her boyfriend Seth, but Kerrigan is defending Seth's actions and his every misstep. She refuses to see the darkness behind his actions as he tries to control her every move. Adding to the complexities is another surprising revelation that comes to light.

Obviously, this is a complicated plot that follows several different, complex narrative threads, but it is also a compelling, tension-filled novel that will hold your attention throughout while you follow the investigation, the clues, and events in the various plot points. Be forewarned that the plot of The Cutting Place takes several dark, intense directions that heightens the tension, suspense, and anxiety while reading. The narrative is evenly paced and the new revelations and clues are evenly paced and gradually escalate until they reach critical mass on all the various plot threads. Casey does an excellent job with this complicated novel and the ending is satisfying.

Since this is the ninth book in the series, fans will know these characters and their development. Readers new to the series needn't worry about not being able to follow the narrative. I felt like The Cutting Place worked as a stand-alone novel. While you know these characters have a past and a history, enough information is given to understand their relationship and history. I had no problem following along and have not read all the books in the series.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Boop and Eve's Road Trip

Boop and Eve's Road Trip by Mary Helen Sheriff
10/6/20; 304 pages
She Writes Press

Boop and Eve's Road Trip by Mary Helen Sheriff is a recommended Southern family saga following a road trip of a grandmother and granddaughter.

Eve Prince hates college, is fed up with her mother Justine's expectations, and is concerned about her best friend who seems to be MIA. She wants to borrow her grandmother's car to search for her friend, but when her grandmother Boop hears this, she suggests a road trip for both of them, with a stop in to see Boop's sister. The two can see Victoria, Boop's exacting sister, and then head to the beach house where Eve is sure her best friend is staying. There are other generational secrets and unfulfilled desires going on behind the scene and a road trip may be just the thing to get Eve talking and to allow Boop to maybe share a secret she has held for almost sixty years.

On the surface this is a story of a road trip after a granddaughter's disastrous first year at college and to help a grandmother reach her sister's house. It is also a novel about how depression can overtake your life and acceptance of children with special needs. It covers controlling parents expecting too much from their children and those who try to control other people's lives. Most of all it is about family and how even the most messed up relationships can be mended if you truly pay attention to what is said.

I liked this novel- I really did, but while this novel drips Southern charm and on a deeper level even the most cynical reader will wish the best for Boop and Eve, as well as the rest of the extended family and friends, there are some hurdles the rest of us need to overcome to reach this epiphany. First is the name "Boop" for a grandmother. Enough said. Next is the sprinkling of "ain't" and other grammatical problems throughout Boop's dialogue. Finally, the tallest hurdle of all is the plethora of Boop's folksy Southern sayings liberally sprinkled throughout the entire text, things like "life's full of rotten eggs. Hope's what keeps the chicken's laying" and plenty of "butter my butt and call it a biscuit" sorts of things. I struggled mightily overlooking and accepting them. This may be a flaw on my part and I will accept that, but if you believe these issues may bother you, keep that in mind.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of She Writes Press .

American Cheese

American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World by Joe Berkowitz
10/6/20; 304 pages

American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World by Joe Berkowitz is a very highly recommended book about cheese. How could a book about cheese not be worthy of five stars? "Cheese is literally heaven. It’s what happens after milk sheds this mortal coil and ascends to a higher plane of existence."

I've been excited to read American Cheese since I first heard about it and it is worthy of my every expectation. There is no doubt that Joe Berkowitz loves cheese so he is the perfect choice to share the world of American artisan cheese with the rest of us. What is even more entertaining is that he does so in an informative and humorous fashion.

After his first encounter with an artisan cheese tasting and experiencing Rogue River Blue at Murray's Cheese in New York, Berkowitz began to explore the artisan cheese culture. He visits tastings, cheese mongers, makers, affineurs, cheesemonger competitions, dairy scientists, cheese celebrations, and restaurants with cheese carts. There is a whole cheese culture that celebrates cheese. He volunteers at Murray’s Cheese shop, attends the Cheese Ball and meets Madame Fromage, follows the California cheese trail, he visits Cheeselandia, and talks to dairy scientists at Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research. It is a plethora of cheese happenings and cheese information!

If you love cheese, and anyone who is looking into a book called American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World likely does, as you read be sure to have a pen and paper handy so you can write down all the new cheeses to taste. I had to scramble looking for something to write on almost immediately so I'd like to give the rest of you a heads up. I am thrilled to learn that "According to Dr. Ahuja, those among us who can endure limitless dairy products have a genetic mutation that keeps our lactase intact into adulthood. In other words, cheese lovers are technically X-Men." Yes!

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Every Now and Then

Every Now and Then by Lesley Kagen
10/6/20; 296 pages
Crooked Lane Books

Every Now and Then by Lesley Kagen is a highly recommended coming-of-age story set in Wisconsin during the 1960's.

During a hot, scorching summer in the small town of Summit Wisconsin evil visits three eleven-year-old friends. Elizabeth “Biz” Buchanan, Frances “Frankie” Maniachi, and Vivian “Viv” Cleary are starting their summer staying in their tree house hideout and making plans for their summer while staying in the good graces of Biz’s Aunt Jane May who watches the three girls. One of their places to surreptitiously visit is the Broadhurst Mental Institution, where they hide and watch the grounds or stand by a fence and visit with some of the patients allowed to go out in the yard. They know several people who work there and keep an eye on their activities. They also hear that something suspicious is going on there and there may be a "chamber of horrors" in the basement. Beyond this, the girls have plenty of other places to go and things to explore during their summer.

In the novel Biz is reflecting back on this summer during her childhood that changed her life and the lives of her friends. Readers know from the start that something bad is going to happen to the girls so the suspense builds while the plot unfolds languidly as the girls make their plans and speculate about various gossip and happenings in their town. They are still preteen girls enjoying their summer vacation during what would normally be a more innocent time. Certainly the girls would have the freedom to ride their bikes here and there, feeling the invincibility that only the young can really embrace until something changes that feeling of security.

The girls are well-developed characters and all portrayed as having very different personalities while still getting along and being best friends and "tree-musketeers." Kagen covers all the bases that make this a compelling coming-of-age story. You can see the personalities of the girls and how those characteristics will take them on to adulthood. You can also clearly see that these are girls and they don't quite understand all the things happening around them or things they overhear or that are said to them.

This is a well-written, enjoyable novel that was an entertaining, quick read. Kagan does an excellent job tying up all the loose ends and giving the narrative a very satisfying conclusion. Biz is a great choice as the character to tell the story of that summer. Truly a "story about the ties that bind us, the timelessness of grief and guilt—and the everlasting hope for redemption."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crooked Lane Books.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Never Turn Back

Never Turn Back by Christopher Swann
10/6/20; pages est. 320
Crooked Lane Books/ Penguin Random House

Never Turn Back by Christopher Swann is a very highly recommended psychological thriller set in Atlanta.

Ethan Faulkner currently is an English teacher in a private school. He and his sister, Susannah, survived a tragedy in their past. When Ethan was thirteen and Susannah was ten they were both shot and their parents were killed in a home invasion. The two went to live with their uncle, their mother's brother, a man they had never met. Now Ethan avoids close relationships and his troubled sister always seems to be on the move. When Susannah comes back to stay with Ethan, he is at the beginning of a new relationship with a woman, Marisa Devereaux. They had a one night stand at a conference, but now she is a co-worker.

The whole plot takes on a creepy Fatal Attraction vibe, after it becomes obvious that Marisa is preoccupied with him and his story. She is obsessed with him and his sister, she has researched their story online, but why? She is also beginning to overstep boundaries and acting inappropriately, but when Ethan breaks up with her, she becomes weird and frightening. She begins to sabotage Ethan's life. Soon Ethan is being questioned about Marisa's death, but there is a whole lot going on behind the surface that the police don't know. His Uncle Gavin might be able to help him, because his Uncle is known to be able to fix problems.

This is an absolutely compelling, riveting, page-turning thriller that was so engrossing I kept reading it straight through to the end. The story itself, as I mentioned is based on a Fatal Attraction theme, but there is a whole lot more depth in the finely nuanced plot. There is more than simply one narrative thread in the plot and the complexities and depth of the plot is engaging and entertaining. That and the quality of the writing places this thriller above the norm and is what kept me reading. Swann has crafted a well-written and intriguing novel in Never Turn Back. 

The characters are perfectly drawn and well-developed. The bond between brother and sister is believable. The subtle development of Marisa's obsession and malevolence is palatable. Adding an uncle who fixes things was just icing on the cake for me. I really enjoyed this thriller and relished the wide variety of well-developed characters Swann portrayed with perfection.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crooked Lane Books/ Penguin Random House.

Confessions on the 7:45

Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger
10/6/20; 368 pages
Park Row Books

Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger is a very highly recommended unputdownable psychological thriller.

Selena Murphy is commuting home, late on the 7:45. Earlier she watched on her home surveillance camera her husband, Graham, sleeping with their nanny, Geneva, for the second time in a week as their sons Oliver and Stephen are distracted watching TV. Now she is unsure what to do about this situation. She ends up sitting next to a woman, who introduces herself as Martha, on the train and the two share an immediate connection. When the train stalls on the tracks the two strike up a conversation. Martha confesses she is having an affair with her boss and Selena confesses that she suspects her husband is sleeping with the nanny. Selena, wondering why she shared so much to a stranger is sure the two will never meet again. When she arrives at home, Selena confronts her husband who leaves for a few days. Days later Geneva is reported as missing by her sister and as her employers Selena and Graham are questioned. Even more stunning is that Martha, the woman from the train, has suddenly started texting Selena, who doesn't recall sharing information with her.

The writing is incredible. Unger has packed Confessions on the 7:45 full of nail-biting suspense and psychological manipulation. Lies and deceit are swirling around and the plot is gripping and finely layered. This is truly an unputdownable, satisfying thriller. Even when you think you know exactly what is going on, you actually don't. Oh, you may have parts figured out but this narrative is going to surprise you. Geneva's disappearance seems to be the major mystery, but it is just a part of what is going on. There are several other conundrums and questions that present themselves.

The characters are wonderfully realized and the women are strong, capable characters. The chapters mainly alternate between the narrative of two different women, with a few chapters sharing Oliver's observations. Obviously Selena is one of the characters, but the other, Anne, is a woman of mystery and many names. But don't trust anyone - every single character in this novel is hiding something and has some secret even while the outward picture they try to present to others is that of competent people with everything all together.

This is a compelling, riveting, and compulsively readable novel that will command your attention throughout the whole novel!

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


Snow by John Banville
10/6/20; 304 pages
Hanover Square Press

Snow by John Banville is a highly recommended procedural and the start of a new series.

Set in 1957 Ireland a priest has been found murdered at the home of an aristocratic Protestant family. Detective Inspector St. John Strafford has been summoned to County Wexford to investigate the murder of a house guest, Father Tom Lawless, at Ballyglass House, the home of Colonel Osborne and family. Strafford is also Protestant and is determined to conduct his investigation and find the truth behind the murder in spite of the firm control the Catholic Church has over the narrative of the whole process. The Church declares the death an accident. Other obstructions facing Stafford include the reticent culture of the community and the accumulating snowfall. As he carefully looks into the Osbornes, he learns that they are not quite as they present themselves.

While the plot in this procedural carries no surprises, the appreciation is found in the prose, the period setting, and the character development. The quality of the writing sets this novel above the predictable plot. Banville excels at descriptions and focuses sharply on depicting Ireland in the 1950's and the culture of the land at that time. While following the investigation and Strafford's inquiries, the descriptions and observations shared in the writing are simply amazing. The excellence continues in the descriptions of the characters and Strafford's perceptions and observations of them. This is a beautifully written, atmospheric, detailed novel, albeit with a predictable plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Hanover Square Press