Saturday, September 18, 2021

When Ghosts Come Home

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash
9/21/21; 304 pages
HarperCollins

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash is a highly recommended character driven murder mystery set in 1984.

In the middle of the night Sheriff Winston Barnes and his wife Marie are awaken by the sound of a low-flying plane and immediately know something is amiss. Nothing should be landing at the small airport on Oak Island, N.C., so Winston heads over to investigate. What he finds is a large plane has crash landed, the cargo hold is empty, and there is the dead body of a local man on the grass near the landing strip. The dead man, Rodney Bellamy, is the son of a local civil rights activist and math teacher and attended school with Winston's daughter, Colleen. Winston starts the investigation before the FBI steps in and Bradley Frye, the rich-boy developer who is Winston's opponent in the upcoming reelection race in a week, shows up to make his presence known.

To further complicate life, Colleen secretly leaves her husband and comes home to visit her parents. She recently lost their first child at birth and is still grieving. His wife Marie is battling cancer. Frye and his buddies show up flying a confederate flag from their truck to threaten and intimidate Bellamy's widow and Jay, her 14 year-old brother who is staying with her. And rumors are flying around that the plane may have been flown by drug smugglers.

The characters are finely drawn, complex, and realistic in their actions and feelings. The narrative is told through the viewpoints of Winston, Colleen, and Jay. All three are very sympathetic characters who are ordinary people struggling with their own challenging circumstances and have very specific individual thoughts and experiences that closely affect their actions. While the murder investigation involves the plane and who shot Rodney, the real focus is the inner lives and thoughts of these characters. Frye is an anomaly as he is depicted as more of a caricature than a realistic antagonist.

The investigation is almost a side-story to the development of the characters, their inner thoughts, and their interactions with each other and the community. While the plot is compelling, the real pull of this novel is the realistic characters and their personal thoughts and struggles during this particular time period and in their specific circumstances. There is a solution to the mystery, and, although there are holes in the plot, many of the internal struggles of the characters do reach some sort of conclusion. The final denouement is unexpected and shocking.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lean Fall Stand

Lean Fall Stand by Jon Mcgregor
9/21/21; 288 pages
Catapult

Lean Fall Stand by Jon Mcgregor is a highly recommended novel of an unforeseen accident and the struggle of recovery.

Robert 'Doc' Wright is a 33-year veteran technician at Station K in the Antarctic who arrives there with two postdocs geographic researchers, Thomas and Luke. When Thomas wants to take some pictures they make the disastrous choice to bend the rules, heading out without sat-phones and separate. When a blinding storm quickly rolls in, they are struggling to contact each other. It is at this point that Robert/Doc has a stroke and is unable to walk or communicate. Anna, Robert's wife flies from England down to Chile where he has been hospitalized. Robert, who cannot communicate, is unable to tell anyone what happened. Anna, who is an academic researcher studying climate change, has to set her work aside to become a caregiver.

The narrative is told in three parts: Lean, Fall, and Stand. Lean is the beginning of the novel, at the research station and the accident. Fall and Stand switch to Anna's new overwhelming and thankless role as caregiver to her husband who cannot convey his thoughts or needs. His basic care and therapy takes over Anna's life. Rather than the struggle for survival in the harsh Antarctic, the fight is for survival after a stroke and for caring for a stroke survivor. It is a sad tale that moves incrementally and slowly toward hope.

The choice on presenting some of the story through a stream-of consciousness style captures both Roberts broken language struggles due to the aphasia and Anna's endless tasks required to care for him. There is a lack of strong character development that held back some of the connection that might have otherwise been present for the characters. If you have ever known anyone recovering after a stroke, it might help you engage more completely with the characters.

This is a subdued, delicate novel that portrays the struggles of care and recovery with the same focus as surviving any battle. While I appreciated much of the novel, The lack of real connection with the characters and the repetition of Robert's struggles with his speech held me back a little. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Catapult.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Necklace

The Necklace by Matt Witten
9/7/21; 304 pages
Oceanview Publishing

The Necklace by Matt Witten is a recommended thriller.

The narrative follows Susan Lentigo currently and twenty years ago. The novel opens during a fund raising event for Susan. Twenty years ago, soon after they bought the beads to make a necklace together, Susan’s seven-year-old daughter Amy was murdered. Now the man who was convicted of her death is going to be executed and Susan is planning to travel in her dilapidated car from Upstate New York to North Dakota to witness the execution. Her neighbors and friends in her close knit community have donated money to help her get to North Dakota. Susan has never recovered from the death of her daughter. When she discovers a clue involving the necklace Amy made twenty years earlier, the search is on to find more information and the real killer before another young girl is killed.

While your sympathy is with Susan, she is also her worst enemy. She seems emotionally unstable, foolhardy, rude, and quick to anger. She makes several poor, inexplicable choices that are inconceivable and detract from the plot. The clues she is following and her interactions with others aren't entirely believable. The plot will capture your interest, however, in spite of Susan's character. The search for clues and several fortuitous incidents help Susan find the information about who could be the real killer and get her to North Dakota where she finds the FBI agent she worked with twenty years ago and seeks his help.

The plot is easy to follow and read quickly in both timelines, and the switching back and forth in time works in the novel. Susan's search for the truth will grab your attention and even though many of her trials during the trip are a result of her own poor choices, you will still want her to find closure and hope she finds some sense of peace. Once she actually arrives in North Dakota the sense of danger increases. While the ultimate denouement is satisfying, it is not a shocking surprise. 3.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Oceanview Publishing.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Echogenesis

Echogenesis by Gary Gibson
8/10/21; 360 pages
brain in a jar books

Echogenesis by Gary Gibson is a recommended science fiction novel.

Sam Newman and fourteen others wake up inside pods near a damaged landing craft on an unknown planet. Apparently no one knows why or how they ended up on this planet, in this situation. They are also in new, young bodies, unlike the aging bodies many of them remember. The survivors have also already separated into groups, with those who were military in one and the others, composed of engineers, scientists, etc. in another. Now their overwhelming need is to figure out how to survive.

This is an action-based sci-fi story where you have to set disbelief aside completely and go with what happens, in spite of the improbabilities. There is a decent idea here but the execution wasn't quite as good as the concept. The world building is so-so. There is an interesting variety of characters, but no real character development to increase your engagement in the plot. What this leaves is an entertaining novel with several flaws that you can read quite quickly while trying to find out what happened and why. There are several twists in the action and the final denouement was actually worth slogging through some of the problematic parts of the plot.

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

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
9/14/21; 336 pages
Knopf Doubleday

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a very highly recommended historical fiction novel set in Harlem during the early 1960's.

Ray Carney makes a living for his family selling furniture, some gently used. It is 1959 and he and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child. They hope to be able to move into a bigger apartment someday. Despite his background he strives to generally live an upstanding life - with a few exceptions when his cousin Freddy gives him some random stolen item to sell. Then his life begins to change when Freddy tells a group planning to rob the  Hotel Theresa, the "Waldorf of Harlem," that Ray can act as a fence for the stolen items. Once Ray's name is out there, the struggle begins as a group of several different underworld figures enter his life, including the mobster Chink Montague, WWII veteran Pepper, the purple-suited Miami Joe, among others and he begins leading a double life. Suddenly Ray needs to decide how much loyalty he owes to Freddy versus his care for his family and business.

Whitehead shows amazing skill and care in creating his characters and setting them into a specific time and place in history, from 1959 to the Harlem riots of 1964. The atmosphere and setting makes you feel as if you were there, in 1960's Harlem and experiencing everything along with Ray. The compelling plot follows Ray's dilemmas in this family and crime novel that can be funny, serious, and somber, but is engaging from start to finish. It is an entertaining novel that captures the time period and lovingly tells the story of one man and his family. The writing is sumptuous and memorable.

Ray is an appealing protagonist and you will like him, always hoping he finds a way through the dilemmas placed in his path. The tests of his character are numerous and what Ray learns along the way is just as important as what he learned in the past. In a real sense Harlem is another character in the story as Whitehead lovingly captures it during this period in time.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

The Antisocial Network

The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees by Ben Mezrich
9/7/21; 304 pages
Grand Central Publishing

The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich is a very highly recommended account of the GameStop short squeeze when a group of amateur investors, gamers, and Internet trolls took on one of the biggest hedge funds on Wall Street. This comprehensive nonfiction book reads like a thriller and is the compelling true story of what happened.

Most people heard about the members of a Reddit group called WallStreetBets, who dubbed themselves "apes," when they started investing in Game Stop stocks in early 2021 and sent the price per share rising sky high which resulted in a short squeeze costing Wall Street hedge funds billions of dollars. Perhaps you also heard "The Tendieman" sea chanty. The Antisocial Network is truly a real life accounting of a David-vs.-Goliath movement. Mezrich starts the narrative back at the beginning, following the story of average people who were members of WallStreetBets, like nurse Kim Campbell, hair salon employee Sara Morales, college student Jeremy Poe, and Keith Gill who livestreamed on a you tube channel called "RoaringKitty." He tells the story of the co-CEOs Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt who started Robinhood, the investing app that was being used by the "apes" because it allowed ordinary people to trade on the stock market without brokerage fees. And he covers Gabe Plotkin of the hedge fund Melvin Capital and Ken Griffin of Citadel Securities, along with others.

Mezrich's does an excellent job presenting what happened. The events leading up to the news breaking story of the Game Stop short squeeze is clearly presented in an understandable manner that is accessible for interested readers. Even though you know what happens, it really is a page-turner. I could follow the technical information about trading and investing, although I was also following the story when it was happening. I thoroughly enjoyed The Antisocial Network from start to finish. 

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

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Talk to Me

Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle
9/14/21; 352 pages
HarperCollins

Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle is a very highly recommended novel about a chimp who has been taught to communicate via sign language.

Aimee Villard, a university student, applies for a job assisting animal behaviorist and professor Guy Schermerhorn in caring for Sam, a juvenile chimp he has taught to speak in sign language. As soon as she shows up, Sam bonds with her and Guy is also attracted to her. She takes on assisting with the teaching and caring for Sam with a natural ease. Guy is anxious to use Sam's ability to communicate through sign language to further his career, hopefully with an appearance with Sam on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When Dr. Moncrief, the nefarious Iowa professor who owns Sam as well as a large number of other primates, decrees that teaching chimps to communicate is passe, he collects all his chimps, including Sam, and puts them in cages at his containment facility. Aimee, who has bonded with Sam too, leaves California for Iowa where she plans to offer to work at Moncrief's facility for free in order to be near Sam.

As expected from Boyle, the quality of the writing is skillful and superlative. The story is both a farce and a tragedy and I became invested in the plot immediately. Set in California during the mid 1980s, Boyle immediately captured the time period and setting at the opening when Aimee first sees Sam on TV and later a notice on a bulletin board looking for assistants to help with Sam's care.

The narrative is told through Guy, Aimee, and Sam's point of view. While Guy and Aimee's narrative move the plot forward, Sam's provides an awareness and emotional insight into his reactions and thought processes concerning what is happening to him. Their relationships also portray a love triangle of sorts while simultaneously exploring the consciousness, intercommunication, and analyzing the awareness of inter-species connections.

As a character study, the portrayal of Sam and his thoughts and feelings is mesmerizing and compelling. Following the actions and thoughts of Aimee and Guy reflect a more expected and anticipated development of their characters. Aimee is certainly the more nuanced character although Sam is also portrayed with and acuity and compassion. She has a connection with and love for Sam, but no legal rights. She is unable to turn her back on him, knowing the abuse Sam will face at the hands of Moncrief, who is a classic antagonist. Guy is an opportunistic pragmatist who, although he cared for Sam, is more interested in furthering his career.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Mastermind

Mastermind by Andrew Mayne
9/7/21; 332 pages
Thomas & Mercer

Mastermind by Andrew Mayne is a highly recommended thriller featuring Dr. Theo Cray and FBI agent Jessica Blackwood.

Jessica Blackwood is called out of the class she is teaching at the FBI Academy in Quantico because a mysterious dark cloud and electrical storm has completely enveloped Manhattan plunging the entire city into darkness. The power is out and for 12 hours the city appears to have vanished into a void. Jessica is briefed along with others in a diverse team and then they enter into the cloud (in a frightening manner) and investigate. Jessica is sure that the serial killer and cultist known as the Warlock, Michael Heywood, is responsible and the cloud is a misdirection. Clouds also cover over Seoul and Singapore. It becomes clear that Jessica needs the help of Dr. Theo Cray, a brilliant scientist and computational biologist, but he is imprisoned in Myanmar. Jessica must use all her wits to get Theo released, and then they must figure out what is happening and why. 

Jessica Blackwood and Theo Cray are consummate characters and make a great team who work well together. They are both skilled and intelligent and it will require all their individual strengths and abilities to reveal what is really happening. These are strong characters, individually and together, and their individual areas of expertise and competence complement each other.

This is an action packed thriller that moves across the globe as clues are followed and anomalies or incidences need to be investigated. There is so much going on in the plot that you need to try and follow each clue and thought as it comes up. There is a little X-Files vibe contained in the plot, especially in the search for ultimate answer based on various scientific facts and a vast array of other topics that eventually connect various events and discoveries. With the twists and seemingly unconnected clues, it's impossible the guess the direction of the plot. There are so many possibilities and directions the plot could take which serves to increase the tension and intrigue.

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

Saturday, September 4, 2021

The Night She Disappeared

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
9/7/21; 416 pages
Atria Books

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended suspenseful thriller.

Tallulah Murray, her partner, Zach, (both 19) and their infant son Noah are living with Tallulah's mother, Kim. Between caring for their son, Tallulah's class schedule, and Zach's job, the two have been busy and have had a hard year. One summer night the two ask Kim to watch Noah so they can have a date night at a local pub. Kim receives a text later saying they have been invited by a college friend of Tallulah's to a house party at her families country estate, Dark Place, and will be home later than expected. This is the last time anyone hears from Tallulah and Zach. It is proposed that the two simply ran away, but Kim knows that they were both too devoted to Noah to leave him. After a search and investigation, no trace of the two were found.

A year later Sophie Beck moves into a cottage near Dark Place with her partner, Shaun Gray. Shaun has just accepted the position of head teacher at a prestigious school and asked Sophie, a writer of cozy mysteries, to move there with him. As they are settling in, Sophie comes upon a piece of cardboard with hand lettered writing saying "Dig Here" with an arrow pointing down. When she does just that, Sophie discovers a box with what appears to be an engagement ring inside. After learning about the mysterious disappearance of the two teens the year before, Sophie thinks this is tied into the case and she begins to investigate.

The plot unfolds through the narratives in three timelines: Kim's point-of-view starting in 2017; Sophie's starting in 2018; and Tallulah's in 2016. The three don't coalesce until the end and serve to keep the intrigue and tension building throughout the story. There are secrets and events from the past that are unknown until Tallulah's story begins to incrementally reveal them. This plot structure using the three narrative threads works extremely well in The Night She Disappeared and each new revelation adds a new complexity to the plot. This is a novel that you may try to predict what is happening, but you will be surprised with yet another twist. It is a perfectly presented accomplished work of suspense that will hold your attention from start to finish.

The characters are all wonderfully realized and developed with individual personalities. Tallulah is depicted believably as a teenage mother, doing her best. Kim and Sophie are presented as realistic characters - women you could know. The supporting characters also are believable and feel like distinctive characters. The development of the characters and the clever plot structure helps propel The Night She Disappeared to one of the best.

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Funny Farm

Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski
2/22/22, 256 pages
St. Martin's Publishing Group

Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski is a highly recommended collection of stories about animals rescued alternating with an autobiography.

Currently Laurie Zaleski is the founder and owner of New Jersey’s Funny Farm Rescue & Sanctuary and the founder, president and CEO of Art-Z Graphics. It was actually her mother's dream to own an animal sanctuary and Laurie now continues that legacy. Laurie's mother, Anne McNulty Zaleski, left her abusive husband in the 1970's and fled with her children to keep them safe. The family also left behind a very comfortable life to live in poverty in a ramshackle house. What they had was love for each other and a can-do attitude. Along the way the family took in various stray animals and Anne, a fierce animal lover, devoted her life to rescuing animals. 

In between the autobiographical chapters that are also a fierce tribute to her mother Anne, Zaleski tells the stories of various animals that have been rescued over the years. The many animal stories are entertaining and showcase the variety of animals that she takes in as well as the struggle and work it takes to keep an animal sanctuary running. Today the Funny Farm has more than 600 animals and is a non-profit organization which runs with help from the Zaleski family and lots of volunteers.

This is an engaging book and the writing is straightforward and accessible. Alongside the facts and tough circumstances there are humorous and inspiring occurrences too, which makes for a well-balanced narrative. As someone with a house full of adopted animal family members it's always wonderful to read anything that supports adopt don't shop. Be sure to check out the Funny Farm website.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.

The House of Ashes

The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville
9/7/21; 304 pages
Soho Press

The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville is a highly recommended ominous, malevolent novel of psychological suspense.

After her nervous breakdown, Sara Keane's husband Damien moved them from England to Northern Ireland into a house called the Ashes that his father bought for them. Damien has been isolating Sara from her friends since the beginning and this move makes that separation complete. Damien is emotionally abusive and threatening to Sara and this has increased over the years. When Mary Jackson, an old woman, pounds on the door one morning claiming that the Ashes is her home and talks about the children, she is taken back to the care facility where she was sent, leaving Sara wondering about the history of the house. Damien dismisses her concerns, but Sara defies him and begins to uncover Mary's past imprisonment at the house as a child and the terrible history of the Ashes.

The writing is excellent in this novel, although the actual subject matter of abuse makes it difficult to read. The dual narrative tells two stories set at the Ashes, that of present day Sara and Mary's story from sixty years ago. Sara is experiencing abuse currently, but the abuse Mary experienced and lived through is chilling, horrific, and evil. Tied into both narrative threads are ghostly apparitions. While the abuse Sara is currently experiencing is awful, Mary's story of abuse is the more terrifying, frightening, and nefarious - so much so that at times it is difficult to read. The

Both Sara and Mary (as a child) are well developed characters and the dual narratives unfold through their individual points-of-view. Sara's a wounded adult experiencing gaslighting and being manipulated, and controlled by her husband. Mary's story is mainly told through the eyes of a child which in many ways makes it so much more powerful and awful because she literally has no way to escape. The outcomes of both dark narratives are violent but necessary to reach the final denouement. The House of Ashes is an exceptional novel but all the violence and wicked behavior also makes it emotionally draining. 4.5 rounded down.

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Fire in the Night

A Fire in the Night by Christopher Swann
9/7/21; 288 pages
Crooked Lane Books

A Fire in the Night by Christopher Swann is a highly recommended thriller.

Since his wife's death a year earlier, Nick Anthony, a retired professor of medieval history, has lived a quiet secluded life in the North Carolina mountains. When county Deputy Joshua Sams shows up at his house to inform him that the bodies of his estranged brother, Jay, and sister-in-law have been found after their Tampa, Florida home was set on fire, Nick learns that it appears to have been a double homicide and that their daughter, Annalise, a niece he didn't know existed, is missing. When an intruder later turns up on his porch, obviously ill and feverish, it is Annalise. After he brings her back to health, she has information, a map and thumb drive, that her dad wanted her to get to Nick.

At the same time Cole and his team of private military contractors have realized that Annalise was not killed in the house fire and has escaped with the information they are being paid to recover from Jay. Now the lethal team must find Annalise and recover the information. They will let nothing stand in their way. As they try to track Annalise's location, what they don't know is that Nick exists, let alone that he has some skills and abilities in his past beyond his academic career.

Perfect reading for escapism, A Fire in the Night is a fast paced literary thriller that is tightly plotted without a lot of extraneous details or multiple plot threads, which works well in this story. The writing is excellent, which I expected after Swann's last novel, Never Turn Back. There might be a little suspension of disbelief over some of the skills the characters possess, but not enough to detract from the narrative. The descriptive writing perfectly sets up the locations and scenes. The characters believably inhabit the world created here. The threat Nick and Annalise face is real and tension will mount as the men searching for Annalise get closer and closer.

Both Nick and Annalise are fully realized, developed characters who are realistically depicted. They are not perfect people, but you will like both of them, believe in them, and hope they both live to see another day. Annalise is portrayed as a believable teenager under unbelievable stress. Nick is grieving and surprised by Annalise's existence, but manages to do the right thing while thinking about the dialogue he and his wife would have had about the situations. The bad guys are seriously scary and threatening, but also feel like real individuals, which makes them more menacing in many ways.

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

Monday, August 30, 2021

Deer Season

Deer Season by Erin Flanagan
9/1/21; 320 pages
University of Nebraska Press

Deer Season by Erin Flanagan is a very highly recommended character driven novel wrapped around a mystery. This is a beautifully written novel!

In Gunthrum, Nebraska, the 1985 deer season is opening and Alma and Clyle Costagan's intellectually disabled farmhand, Hal Bullard, 28 years-old, has been invited to join two other local men on their weekend hunt. Alma, a pessimist by nature, is concerned for him considering who invited him along. Instead of staying away the whole weekend, Hal returns Saturday night and is seen at the OK bar. When he shows up at the Costagan's Sunday he claims he shot his first deer and came home early. He also has a dent in his front fender, which he may have gotten hitting his garage again on Saturday night, and blood in the truck bed from the deer.

On the same weekend 12 year-old Milo Ahern is being confirmed in church that Sunday. When Milo goes to wake up his 16 year-old sister, Peggy, she's not in her room and later, when she can't be tracked down anywhere, she is reported missing. Gossip begins to swirl around Milo's early return and the condition of his truck. Residents of the small town quickly spread rumors and gossip that accused Hal of violence against Peggy, in spite of the lack of proof. It does not help matters that Hal has a crush on Peggy. Milo is much more observant and thoughtful than most of the adults around him.

Deer Season is an exquisitely written literary novel. While the plot follows the reaction of the citizens of the town during the search for Peggy, the focus of the novel is an honest and compassionate character study full of attentive, intelligent observations. The characters are fully realized, complex individuals with faults, shortcomings and emotional damages, but also with honest knowledge and awareness of the small community around them and their faults. There are heartbreaking revelations and thoughts shared by both Milo and Alma and they will have your total empathy.

Alma and Milo are the primary narrators in the novel and the plot unfolds through their points-of-view and their observations of the events surrounding Peggy's disappearance. While the mystery of Peggy's disappearance gives shape and purpose to the plot, the rich characterizations give the novel a depth and sensitivity that propels it to a standout mystery novel. Underlying themes include the contemplation of what it means to be a family and a question of how far would you go to protect those you love.

With the complex characters and the satisfying and surprising conclusion, Flanagan has written a stunning, extraordinary debut novel. Deer Season would be a wonderful choice for book clubs that like to discuss literary fiction.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the University of Nebraska Press for TLC Book Tours.

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Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nice Girls

Nice Girls by Catherine Dang
9/14/21; 352 pages
HarperCollins

Nice Girls by Catherine Dang is a so-so murder mystery.

Mary left Liberty Lake, Minnesota for Cornell with the moniker of "Ivy League Mary" given to her by the locals. Now she is back at age 22 having been expelled during her senior year from the university for assaulting another student. Mary, who was a quiet chubby girl before she left, is now much thinner but still carrying much of the anger she had when still living there and apparently all through her time at Cornell. When Mary's father brings her home he expects her to get a job and she does, as a cashier at a local grocery store. Right after Mary arrived back in Liberty Lake, a previous friend, Olivia Willand, goes missing and the town is searching for her when Mary discovers that another girl, DeMaria, went missing months earlier and didn't receive the same attention and care by the police.

Perhaps this is more of a mystery for young adult readers because of the simplistic writing and predictable plot. Mary is truly an extremely dislikable character so it was a struggle at time to keep reading the novel. She's immature, cynical, carries grudges, and constantly recalls wrongs done to her in the past. She is only 22, so it is not like she has a life time of being down trodden. I could go with all of this but when she starts working at a grocery store, which, horrors, is beneath her intelligence and capabilities, the whiny protagonist lost me. Then when she calls in sick to start doing her own investigating, I was over it. There are plenty of stereotypes presented and the characters are all more caricatures in Nice Girls. The last third of the novel heads off into an unbelievable direction and the ending takes a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. I finished it, but this one wasn't a winner for me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Snowflake

Snowflake by Louise Nealon
9/14/21; 336 pages
HarperCollins

Snowflake by Louise Nealon is a highly recommended coming of age story.

Debbie is eighteen and commuting from the family dairy farm in rural Kildare County to attend Trinity college in Dublin where she is overwhelmed, learning how to hide, and depressed. While her life on the farm with her Uncle Billy and her mother, Maeve, hasn't been without drama and problems, they all love and support each other. At college in Dublin, Debbie makes one friend, Xanthe, although the two are seemingly opposites and Xanthe is the one who pursues Debbie's friendship. At home, although Debbie wants to pull away from her family, they offer comfort in their familiarity, although they drink too much and their behavior is often odd. Debbie also begins to drink too much in Dublin and is depressed. When a tragic accident shakes up her whole family, they all have to face some harsh realities.

The quality of the writing is excellent. The contrast of Debbie's rural life on the farm versus city life in Dublin is depicted realistically as is her uncomfortable transition between the two contrasting worlds. This contrast is also captured in the differences between the lives of Debbie and Xanthe, who have a connection in spite of their differences. The closeness and relationship between Billy and Debbie is believable and beautifully rendered. There is an element of magic realism in the plot. The growth and depth of the characters is wonderfully captured.  Everyone in the family have special gifts - Maeve and Debbie in their dreams and Billy in some special abilities. The frank inclusion of depression and the abuse of alcohol is realistically depicted in how it affects the characters. This is a very good debut novel and it will be interesting to see what Nealon writes next.

At the beginning of this novel I felt like it was more a new adult/young adult novel as the focus felt to was targeting a younger reader versus a mature adult reader. This evaluation did change as the novel progressed and the characters experienced some growth, but it needs to be mentioned. Once we learned more about Debbie's family and their struggles and gifts, it slowly became a better novel. I still feel that the target reading audience skews young, although I appreciated the character growth.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Greenwich Park

Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner
1/4/22; 384 pages
Gallery Books

Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Right from the opening, which is a letter sent to Helen from someone in prison, you know that something is going to go terribly wrong. Helen, Rory, and Charlie are siblings, adult children of a well known decease architect. Helen is married to Daniel and the two are now expecting their first child after several previous miscarriages. Rory and his wife, Serena, are also expecting and due around the same time. Rory and Daniel are partners in an architectural firm, which Rory inherited from his father. Helen inherited the Victorian house where she and Daniel reside. Charlie inherited cash. He is the family outcast and is dating Katie, a friend of Helen.

Helen is 24 weeks pregnant and attending her first prenatal class when she meets Rachel. After Daniel said he had to work late and Serena said she changed her mind and was attending a different class, Helen was left alone until a single woman, Rachel, showed up and sat next to her. Rachel quickly inserted herself into Helen's life. Helen, a quiet, socially awkward, insecure woman who has a difficulty making friends, is ripe for Rachel's friendly overtures so even though it sometimes makes her uncomfortable. Rachel's friendship is also welcome in many ways, in spite of the fact that Helen is being very careful with her pregnancy, while Rachel is still drinking and smoking during hers. The only trouble is that something seems off with, well, almost everyone and everything else.

Helen is a sympathetic character, but her lack of self confidence and doubt in herself is sad. She keeps making excuses for how busy Daniel is and puts up with his excuses. She is so clueless that her gullibility is a bit unbelievable. As Serena and Katie always seem busy, she is ripe for a friend and Rachel fills that need. Rachel is an outlier; you don't know what she thinks and there are plenty of reasons to not trust her. Serena is clearly untrustworthy, arrogant, and very self-assured. You will neither trust nor like her. Katie is a very appealing, likable character and the most authentic character in the novel.

The writing is excellent and the plot and pace of the revelations are perfectly timed. Greenwich Park is told through the point-of-view of Helen, Serena, and Katie and follows along Helen's pregnancy, starting at week 24. The multiple narrators and breaking the novel down into the weeks of Helen's pregnancy works very well in this novel and serves to keep the plot moving forward and increasing the sense of dread, that something is wrong. And there are plenty of indications that something is terribly wrong and that everything isn't right. Faulkner keeps you guessing, though and the true nature of what is going on is revealed very slowly and carefully. The ending of Greenwich Park is very well done and shocking. The very end of the novel is absolutely perfect.

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

More Bad Days in History

More Bad Days in History by Michael Farquhar
6/8/21; 464 pages
National Geographic

More Bad Days in History by Michael Farquhar is a highly recommended compendium featuring a bad event for every day of the year. This follows Bad Days in History published in 2015.

Organized by month and day this is not so much a book you read cover to cover as one you dip into for a daily or monthly dose of misfortune, mishaps, and misbehavior. The entries range from ancient Rome to recent history, with more recent dates favored over earlier times. The historical anecdotes cover a wide range of subjects, from politicians, to writers, celebrities, pop culture figures and notable personalities. This is the book for those who derive pleasure from another person's misfortune. The events are not horrific or tragic; they are bad days, just like a bad day you might have only perhaps on a larger scale because most of us won't have our bad days recorded for posterity. The events covered are mostly that of a person but some tangentially involve a city or region.

Recently during a small gathering I brought out the book and we had an enjoyable time just thumbing through the book, looking up suggested dates (birthdays are always fun). This was a fun approach to using More Bad Days in History as an entertaining diversion. It must be noted that the group found some bad days more amusing than others, which is to be expected with any collection of what are essentially short stories. It was also noted among the group that some of the wording was a little more prejudicial or politicized than it needed to be. It's a collection of bad days in history so extra editorializing shouldn't be needed to tell the story.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from National Geographic for TLC Book Tours

TLC Book Tour schedule

YouTube interview


Monday, August 23, 2021

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
9/14/21; 128 pages
Ten Speed Press

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson and illustrated by Jay Cooper is a very highly recommended, hilarious guide that would make a perfect gift for anyone who enjoys British mysteries, especially cozy mysteries.

As a cozy mystery lover, you are finally taking that long awaited trip to England and look forward to seeing the quaint villages you have read about for years. There are some important things to consider and thankfully there is this guide to help you decide and plan your course of action. As Johnson points out in the introduction, "It is possible that you will find yourself in a placid and tedious little corner of England; it is just as possible that you will end up in an English Murder Village." You won't know if it is a murder village until it is too late, and that is precisely where this handy illustrated guide will help you find your way through the traps that await you at every turn and hopefully keep you alive. For example "The Village Shop: It sells cheese, stamps, and death." The author warns you that the best course of action is to stay in the urban areas, stay out of the countryside and continue on with your life.But if you decide to venture forth, hopefully the guide will help you survive.

This entertaining, hilarious guide is full of allusions to classic literary crime scenes and British lore. Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village opens with a note to the reader and then is divided into two sections with specifics following. The first section is The Village, which covers: Building & Spaces; Residents; Events, and a Quiz over details. The second section is The Manor, followed by sections on: Buildings & Spaces; Rooms & Architecture; furnishings & features; Residents; Frequent Guests; staff; events; and a Quiz section. Alas, based on my performance on the quizzes, my chance of survival is under fifty percent.

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village will make a perfect, funny gift to give to all those British mystery lovers in your life.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Ten Speed Press via NetGalley.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Not Like Us

Not Like Us by Ava Strong
6/29/21; 182 pages
Morgan Rice
Ilse Beck Book 1

Not Like Us by Ava Strong is a recommended psychological thriller and the first book in the Ilse Beck series.

Dr. Ilse Beck is a psychologist who specializes in helping the survivors of serial killers. These survivors, her patients, are dealing with the PTSD. When Ilse has a new patient, Samantha, who survived being held captive and tortured by a serial killer twenty years ago but still struggles remembering details, Ilse begins to have flashbacks to her childhood. She is a survivor herself and suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her father. Samantha is sure that she is being followed and her captor from years ago is stalking her. At the same time a killer is loose in the area and two women have been found dead. Something happens to Samantha when she is one the phone with Ilse. After calling the police, Ilse rushes to the last known location of Samantha and meets FBI BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) agent Tom Sawyer, who is on those cases of the previous victims. The two end up working together in their search for Samantha.

Not Like Us is the first of four books featuring Dr. Ilse Beck working with the FBI and this first volume is the story behind her collaboration with the FBI and I'm assuming with Tom Sawyer. The other three books in the series are Not Liked He Seemed, Not Like Yesterday, and Not Like This. This is a quick read featuring a compelling search for a killer along with several gruesome and horrifying scenes. The opening pages will fly by as the killer chooses a victim, and you will want justice and be ready for the search. After that point, the writing and plotting becomes increasingly uneven. Where the writing shines the novel works well, however, the sections where it falls short lessen the impact of the entire novel.

Ilse Beck was actually an unlikable character for most of the book in many ways and a bit of an enigma. She has flashbacks of her traumatic, abusive childhood, which does elicit sympathy, but it also seems that she hasn't had the therapy she needs to move on and recover. Physician heal thyself, indeed. Tom Sawyer was much the same way only more of a taciturn curmudgeon. After being introduced to him in the narrative, I initially liked his character but, alas, he was sent down an irrational course of action which served to dampen my enthusiasm for the character. This was a quandary for rating. Parts were excellent and parts were not. I'm settling for 3 stars, recommending it with the hope that the series gets better.

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

Lost Angels

Lost Angels by Stacy Green
8/27/21; 270 pages
Bookouture
Nikki Hunt #3

Lost Angels by Stacy Green is a highly recommended procedural and the third book in the Nikki Hunt series.

When a body is found in the Boundary Waters area in Northern Minnesota near Stillwater, FBI Special Agent Nikki Hunt, her partner Liam Wilson, and forensic specialist Courtney Hart are called in to investigate. Other than a few differences, the young woman is positioned and has all the signs indicating she is the fifth victim of a serial killer tagged as Frost. Nikki and her team have been looking for Frost for five years. When they are examining the victim Nikki is shocked to recognize her as a childhood friend she hasn't been in contact with her for years, Annmarie Mason. When the team searches for clues in Annmarie's apartment, they are even more stunned to discover that she has been tracking Frost on her own and may have known she would be a target for the killer.

The good news is that Lost Angels is an exciting procedural that will hold your complete attention while following the action, clues and discoveries. This means that most readers can set my upcoming qualms aside. Now the clues do pile, up as does the sense of an impending malevolent threat that seems increasingly personal and targeting Nikki. Adding to the unease is that Annmarie, although no longer in contact with Nikki, was following the Frost case and evidence closely, and seemed to suspect something nefarious connected to the case and the purpose of the murders. She also clearly thought correctly she was a target. When Nikki later finds a clue in Annmarie's apartment, clearly left by Frost, it shakes her up to the very core. 

Now for my misgivings. First, it might help readers new to the series to read the first two books, The Girls in the Snow and One Perfect Grave, before Lost Angels as this third installment in the series really jumps right into things assuming some prior introduction to the characters and previous events. For me, a reader new to the series, most of the characters seemed underdeveloped. It was also quit clear the direction the plot was taking very early on and wondered why Nikki, presented as an intelligent, astute investigator, didn't have a clue. Finally, one must say "Goodness, how many terrible, twisty things can happen in a short period of time to one woman?" And Nikki surely has been through a whole lot before this novel takes place adding to the long list of horrendous events in her life.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture via NetGalley.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Tin Camp Road

Tin Camp Road by Ellen Airgood
8/3/21; 304 pages
Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House

Tin Camp Road by Ellen Airgood is a very highly recommended literary domestic drama. This excellent, engaging, and genuine novel will hold your attention and heart from start to finish.

Laurel Hill and her intelligent, exuberant ten-year old daughter Skye have always been a team and managed to have a rich life even while living in poverty. The Hills have lived in the small town of Gallion on Lake Superior for four generations, so Laurel is determined to raise her daughter there while working several odd jobs. Her wandering mother lost the family home so Laurel and Skye are now living in a dilapidated rental house where the water and heat are frequently off and not fixed by their landlord. After losing their babysitter, Laurel now needs to leave Skye alone while she works. When their landlord tells them they have to be out in December because he wants to fix the house up as a short term rental for tourists, Laurel tries to find another option but can't. She ends up moving them out to the woods into an old trailer in the woods and Skye has to switch to a new school district.

Laurel fiercely loves Skye. She keeps an optimistic attitude and approach to parenting her daughter even while she realizes all the things she can't do. Her life is devoted to taking care of her daughter and she is determined to do it all herself. While I understand her tenacity and reticence, it is heartbreaking when Laurel doesn't ask for help from the people around her - people who care and would help. Heartbreaking events that follow their move out to the trailer result in some profound character growth and development. Laurel faces some facts, makes some hard choices, and learns a few important lessons along the way. Both Laurel and Skye are wonderful characters, as is the whole cast of supporting characters, the town of Gallion, and the area itself.

Tin Camp Road is a beautifully written and a realistic, genuine novel that will resonate with readers who appreciate literary fiction. Once I started reading this novel I was immersed in the plot and lost all track of time. The plot moves forward at an even pace until a shocking event that changes Laurel's outlook at life and makes her reexamine everything she believed was the best course of action. This is a realistic novel and the people, struggles, and weather are all described and depicted exactly as would be expected. The contrast between wealthy residents and their cluelessness of the poverty Laurel is experiencing is authentic. Laurel's determination to work any job and not feel sorry for herself is truly an admirable trait, which makes her growth in understanding that asking for help when you truly need it is not giving up an even stronger event. This would be an excellent choice for a book club.

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Guide

The Guide by Peter Heller
8/24/21; 272 pages
Knopf Doubleday

The Guide by Peter Heller is a masterfully written exceptional literary thriller that is very highly recommended. This is one of the best novels of the year.

Jack decides to take a break from working on his father's ranch and accepts a short term seasonal job as a fishing guide at Kingfisher Lodge in Colorado. The lodge is a resort for the privileged where guests pay a high premium to fish along the pristine river nickname "Billionaire's Mile." Jack's hope is that guiding guests in finding the best trout fishing possible will help him recover from traumatic events in his past. Once at the lodge, he learns there are an excess of rules, that the boundaries of where guests are allowed to fish is strict, with one end guarded by a crazy old man with a gun and the other by a pack of guard dogs, and he notices cameras everywhere. Jack is assigned to guide Allison K., a well-known singer, for a week of fishing.

Jack and Allison quickly form a bond while fishing and soon after over their suspicions that things are not as they seem. Many of the guests don't fish, but why would they have a bandage on their hands after a spa day? When Jack is the recipient of a warning shot while they are fishing and a scream is heard in the middle of the night, both Jack and Allison are suspicious that something else is going on at the lodge and at the adjoining property.

The impeccable writing in The Guide is absolutely perfect and sets the scenes, perfectly describing the natural world and bringing it to life. This attention to detail continues in the portrayals of the characters and in the discoveries of what is really going on at the lodge. The tranquil beauty of the natural setting contrasted with the truth of what is going on is a shocking and appalling juxtaposition and creates an increasing sense of danger and repugnance.

The Guide is set in a post-pandemic world and three years the events in The River, in which Jack was one of the main characters. Enough of Jack's backstory is in the narrative that you don't have to read the River first, but I would definitely recommend that you do, as it is also an incredible, riveting novel. Jack and Allison are portrayed as believable, unique individuals and create a good team together. The setting and Colorado river is itself a character. The speculative setting a few years in the future feels realistic, but also depicts a frightening concept.

This is an original, compulsively readable thriller and you will want to know the answer to the mystery at the lodge, but also be frightened about what will happen to Jack and Allison as it becomes increasingly clear that they may be in danger. The action leading up to the ending is riveting and engrossing. The ending is absolutely satisfying and redemptive. The Guide is one of the best novels of the year - don't miss this one!

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Where I Left Her

Where I Left Her by Amber Garza
8/24/21; 304 pages
MIRA Books

Where I Left Her by Amber Garza is a recommended psychological thriller.

When overprotective mother Whitney drops off Amelia, her 16-year-old teenage daughter, to spend the night with her friend Lauren, she has reservations about not going to the door with because she has never met Lauren's parents. The next day Whitney calls to see if Amelia is ready to come home, but there is no answer. She tries to track her phone, but it's off. When she returns to the house where she dropped Amelia off, an elderly couple lives there and they know nothing about Amelia. Whitney then begins to frantically search for her daughter and uncovers secrets and lies she has been told.

While this is certainly an intriguing novel, it also requires you to set disbelief aside several times. There are plenty of secrets and lies going on between all of the characters. The narrative jumps between the relationship of Whitney and Amelia before and after the drop off, her present day search for her daughter, and Whitney's childhood and her experiences. Additionally there are excerpts from another teens diary about a friend named Millie who is a bad influence on her. While this plot structuring can be successful in some novels, once I reached the ending it was clear that the structure didn't work for me in this particular novel.

The search for Amelia will hold your attention, in spite of the fact that Whitney isn't very likable. It might have helped the novel if she were a more sympathetic character. There are twists, but too many coincidences. I stuck the novel out to the end, suspicious about the direction it was going to take, and, although others seem to be shocked by the ending, I wasn't. I liked the novel. It is a decent read for escapism but doesn't stand out above others in the genre.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.