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

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 by Louise Nealon
9/14/21; 336 pages

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

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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
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.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Family Across the Street

The Family Across the Street by Nicole Trope
8/6/21; 250 pages

The Family Across the Street by Nicole Trope is a highly recommended domestic thriller set in Sydney, Australia.

Margo is taking care of her baby when she hears what sounds like gun shots. As she looks outside she sees the police and her older neighbor Gladys outside. When Margo steps out to ask what is going on, Gladys tells her that shots have been fired and to go back inside. At this point the novel jumps back in time seven hours earlier in the morning when it appears that things started to go wrong at the Wests' home. Logan, a delivery driver has a package for Katherine West that must be signed for, but she says she can't open the door to sign for it. This strikes Logan as odd, especially when he said he'd wait if she needed to get dressed or anything. Gladys noticed right away that the twins, George and Sophie, were quiet in the morning, rather than the loud and rambunctious five-year-olds they normally are, and she didn't see them leave for school. When she tries to stop by and talk to Katherine, she is told it isn't a good time through the closed door. She later tries to call Katherine several times but the calls are not answered. Later when she sees a sign in the upstairs window saying "Halp Us" she is certain something is terribly wrong.

The narrative is told through the perspective of Gladys and Logan, outside the Wests' home, and from the point-of-view of the adults inside the Wests' home where Katherine and her children are being held hostage. As this is a character based drama, Trope allows her characters to push plot development forward and help create a sense of unease, tension, and fear. While the drama inside the home is disturbing and dangerous, Gladys is dealing with her own problems with her increasingly incapacitated husband. While out on his deliveries, Logan learns some bad personal news and must process that information until he is in a place to deal with it.

This compelling novel sets a quick pace as it switches between the various points-of-view in short chapters. This swift shuffling between the perspectives of the four characters helps keep the tension building while you try to guess exactly what is going to happen next in the life of each character. Trope is careful to develop her characters without revealing any of the secrets she wants to keep for later and will deliberately lead you toward the action packed final reveal and confrontation. (The title was originally Home Sweet Home and then changed to The Family Across the Street, so reviews of this novel can be found under both titles.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Pretty Broken Dolls

Pretty Broken Dolls by Jennifer Chase
8/5/21; 302 pages
Katie Scott series #6

Pretty Broken Dolls by Jennifer Chase is a highly recommended police procedural and the 6th book in the Detective Katie Scott series.

Detective Katie Scott and Deputy Sean McGaven work on cold cases so it is a surprise when they are told to help Special Agent Dane Campbell, an FBI agent working on what appears to be a serial killer who strikes every year. As they begin to look into the cold cases, they are called out to a murder scene at the fairground in Pine Valley, California. A woman is found tied to a Ferris wheel carriage with her throat cut. Like the serial killer cases they have been looking at, the victim has had lipstick and other makeup applied and their is a piece of her jewelry hanging by a ribbon in the area. As she looks into the murders it is clear that they all share something in common with Katie herself - all the victims were a part of the military K9 training unit. Katie suffers from PTSD, but she has Cisco, her German Shepard K9 partner, to help her. It becomes clear with the similarities between Katie and the victims that she may also be a target.

This is a straight forward police procedural where you follow the clues and the investigators in order to reach the conclusion. As my first Katie Scott book, I felt like Pretty Broken Dolls can be read as a stand-alone novel, even though it is the 6th book in the series. You may be missing some background into the character's personal lives and relationships, but as a procedural all the pertinent facts are presented. McGaven is a good partner and the two have an excellent working relationship. Chad, Katie's fiance, is absent for training in most of the book, so he is a lifeless character in this book for those who haven't read any of the series.

The narrative moves along at a good pace and the ending is surprising, although I did have some suspicions early on. Katie does take a few too many risky chances, but it is clearly part of her personality. This trait also keeps the sense of danger high throughout the novel. This is a good procedural that provides the facts and information you need as the case is investigated.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookoutre.

Thursday, August 12, 2021


Bloodless by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
8/17/21; 400 pages
Grand Central Publishing
Pendergast Series #20

Bloodless by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child is a very highly recommended investigative thriller and the 20th book in the Pendergast series.

Bloodless opens with one of the FBI's most famous unsolved cases occurred on November 24, 1971, when D. B. Cooper hijacked Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle. Cooper, who said he had a bomb, collected a ransom of $200,000, and parachuted off the plane. He was never found.

Fifty years later FBI agents Aloysius X.L. Pendergast and Armstrong Coldmoon are sent to Savannah, Georgia, to investigate two bodies that have been found completely drained of blood. Accompanying them is Constance Greene. Behind their case assignment is a U.S. Senator who wants the case quickly taken care of before the bad press jeopardizes his reelection. At the same time, a crew arrives in town to film a documentary on haunted Savannah for Netflix and want to tie the bloodless bodies to rumors of the Savannah Vampire. Pendergast always has a way to find the responsible perpetrator and is always unconventional in how he accomplishes this task.

This entertaining installment in the series can be easily read as a stand-alone since it doesn't tie into any previous cases. And it is a wild weird ride to investigate and solve the case. The great thing is that you can't guess what the final denouement is going to be as Preston and Child always have a shocking twisty solution in their novels and this time it is even more unpredictable. Solving the D.B. Cooper case along side the case of the bloodless bodies is a surprising connection and the ties to the current case is wonderfully unexpected. When you reach the conclusion it is going to be a breathless, action-packed, shocking surprise. You'll never anticipate the directions and places this one will go.

At this point fans know the characters and won't really need much information beyond that which is provided. Those new to the series just need to now that Pendergast and Constance are both enigmas as a characters anyway. Their inscrutability is a constant in most of the novels so any time any unexpected insight is revealed, it is a major development. Sit back and enjoy the investigation, including Coldmoon's preferred coffee.

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

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

56 Days

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard
8/17/21; 305 pages
Blackstone Publishing

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard is a very highly recommended murder mystery set in Ireland during the 2020 lockdown.

What would you do if you started a new relationship and the attraction was mutual. You both think this new relationship has potential - and then the whole world shuts down. Should you shelter together during the lock down? This is the story of Ciara and Oliver, who met in a grocery store fifty-six days ago. Their first date is the week COVID-19 reaches Irish shores. Thirty-five days later they learn the country is shutting down and they decide to live together in Oliver's larger apartment. Today a decomposing body has been found in Oliver's apartment. Now the police need to uncover what happened.

The writing and the pacing are excellent. I was totally engrossed in this story start to finish. Enjoying a lock down story this much surprised me, but it's the layers and depth to the narrative that set this apart as an outstanding novel. Both Oliver and Ciara have secrets and things they are hiding from each other. They are attracted to each other, but are also questioning everything the other person is doing or thinking. Adding to the tension is the fact that we know the police Detectives Lee Riordan and Karl Connolly are investigating a body found in an apartment.

The narrative jumps between the points-of -view of Ciara, Oliver, and Lee and in doing so it also jumps between time periods. The revelations slowly build up a complete picture of everything that happened. The tension builds and the questions escalate while the story is mesmerizing and admirable. Ciara and Oliver are both realistic, interesting characters and you will like them. They like each other and have made this surprising decision, and it makes sense. Certainly their relationship will flourish without outside tensions. But we know something is going to happen once the detectives begin investigating a body found in an apartment. What could have gone wrong?

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Blackstone Publishing.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Family Plot

The Family Plot by Megan Collins
8/17/21; 320 pages
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

The Family Plot by Megan Collins is a highly recommended atmospheric murder mystery with Gothic overtones.

Dahlia Lighthouse's father, Daniel, has passed away and at age 26 she is returning home to Blackburn Island after being gone for 8 years. She grew up in what locals called the "Murder Mansion." This moniker was given to her home and family because of her true-crime obsessed parents and the way she and her three siblings were raised. Dahlia and Andy, her twin brother, were much younger than her older brother Charlie, and her sister, Tate. Their mother taught them at home but she based her curriculum off of her obsession with true crime stories. As her twin brother, Andy, often said their family was unnatural and the way they were raised wasn't right. Andy disappeared at age 16, presumed to have run away, but soon after Dahlia returns home a shocking discovery is made: Andy's body, his skull split open with an ax, is found buried in their father’s plot.

Dahlia is determined to find the killer and bring him to justice. She is sure Andy's death had something to do with the Blackburn killer, a serial killer who murdered seven women over two decades on the island but was never caught. As Dahlia tries to uncover who killed Andy, the rest of the eccentric family responds to the news by keeping busy with disconcerting activities. Her mother, who does not cook, endlessly tries to bake cookies. Charlie plans to open up the mansion for a limited time as a murder museum. Tate, who makes popular dioramas portraying crime scenes, begins to make one for Andy.

The writing is good, and, although it caught my attention at the beginning, once the novel took off I didn't personally connect with the whole true crime angle. Dahlia is the narrator for the entire novel. The story drags a bit in the middle as new information that may or may not mean anything and potential suspects are introduced. Character development is a bit lacking, perhaps in an attempt to create mystery, but it wasn't entirely successful. The novel does pick up the pace at the end and all the mysteries are resolved.

Since Andy's body is found right away it sets up the search for the killer amid an odd family who have an encyclopedic knowledge of all sorts of other true crime victims. While at first this is startling and weird, it actually doesn't add much to the actual advancement of the plot. Additionally I had to set disbelief aside as I couldn't help but wonder why no one sent some authorities to look into the home life of the children living in the "murder mansion." While I fully believe in homeschooling, all the revelations by the end of the book would have warranted some concern, especially if you have a police officer basically stalking them 24/7 who certainly would have saw or heard something - like children required to write murder reports for their schooling. 3.5 rounded up for the unique hook.

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

Saturday, August 7, 2021


Cul-De-Sac by Joy Fielding
8/10/21; 384 pages
Penguin Random House

Cul-De-Sac by Joy Fielding is a recommended psychological thriller.

Right at the start we know someone living in one of the five houses on the quiet cul-de-sac in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, will be dead, shot by another resident. What resident from one of the five homes is going to be responsible? Maggie and her husband are currently separated and have two children. Maggie is scared and paranoid after a frightening incident which propelled the family to move from LA to Florida. Julia is an 84 year-old widow whose grandson is staying with her while her son is trying to talk her into moving to a retirement community. Sean is unemployed, drinking heavily, and lying about going to job interviews while Olivia, his wife, is doing well in her return to the job market. Nick is an oncologist and Dani, his wife, is a dentist. They have two sons. Nick is controlling while Dani seems to be giving the other neighbors the cold shoulder. Aiden and Heidi are newlyweds. Aiden suffers from PTSD and his mother, Lisa, is the controlling, shrewish mother-in-law from the abyss. They all have secrets and fears. And everyone owns a gun.

This is akin to a closed room murder mystery, where we are looking at a small group of people and all their problems, while knowing one of them is going to murder another one. The characters are all caricatures of a kind of person. It is successful in this closed-room plot element. You do have to set disbelief aside several times and approach the novel as an often over-the-top melodrama.

They are all dislikeable characters, most of them extremely so, with the exception of Julia who is a rational, sensible woman. Maggie is the one character who experiences growth. There are going to be several characters whose actions and problems may anger, disgust, and exasperate you. There is abusive behavior and an assault which actually sickened me and I almost set the novel aside at this point. I did go on to finish it and the denouement is satisfying. Fielding makes it clear that we know everyone in the novel has a gun. She apparently wants to equates this to danger and carelessness, which is a nonsensical and objectionable presumption to apply in such a broad general way, especially considering the actual events in the novel and the reason for the lethal force, the use of which most readers will applaud. (And in light of the fact that we all have knives, which can also be weapons.)

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

Friday, August 6, 2021

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
8/3/21; 352 pages

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead is a very highly recommended murder mystery. This is an unputdownable, binge-worthy, entertaining, exceptional debut novel.

It has been ten years since Jessica (Jess) Miller graduated from Duquette University. Jessica is planning to attend the reunion and display how she is now successful, beautiful, and confident in life. This will be in contrast to the murky end of college when one of her friends was murdered. They were close friends who ruled the campus and were known as the East House Seven: Heather, Caro, Mint, Jack, Frankie, Coop, and Jess. Heather was murdered at the end of their senior year and Jack was the main suspect, but wasn't charged. The group left under a cloud of suspicion. Now five of them are coming back, to the reunion. Jack, still friends with Jess, is not attending. Heather's younger brother, Eric, now works in alumni office and plans to use the reunion as an opportunity to find her killer. He knows it is one of the five people from the East House Seven attending the reunion.

The narrative alternates between the two timelines, one set in the present at the reunion and the other in the past during their college years. The characters are fully realized. Jess is the main narrator of the story at the reunion with flashbacks mostly from her point-of-view until much later in the novel. Jess is a flawed character - self-centered, dislikeable, and driven but with low self-esteem. Her flaws and those that eventually come out about the other characters make the plot even more interesting.

This is an excellent novel! At the beginning of In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, I thought, "oh no, not another college golden days novel," but as I continued reading, I was very pleasantly surprised. The alternating  timelines works so well in this novel and Winstead uses the plot device perfectly to provide background information while increasing the tension. And there are revelations, twists, duplicity, secrets, hypocrisy, and surprises abounding. It is a remarkable murder mystery melodrama. Once the plot gets rolling and secrets start coming out it really is impossible to stop reading. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks.

Thursday, August 5, 2021


Vortex by Catherine Coulter
8/10/21; 400 pages
FBI Series #25

Vortex by Catherine Coulter is a highly recommended thriller and the 25th book in the FBI Series.

Mia Briscoe's best friend, Serena, disappeared seven years ago when the two attended a frat party where a fire broke out. Nothing was ever discovered about her disappearance. Now an investigative journalist covering the political scene Mia still wonders what happened to her friend. When a friend discovers some old photos on a phone that were taken at the party she gives them to Mia to see if they could provide any clues about what happened that night. She quickly identifies the suspects in Serena's disappearance and with the help of FBI agents Tommy Maitland (Serena's boyfriend) and Lacey Sherlock much more is uncovered.

At the same time there is another case going on. FBI agent husband, Dillon Savich, Lacey's husband, is looking into an attack on a CIA agent Olivia Hildebrandt. She killed one of the two men who attacked her. The attack is likely related to her last mission and almost certainly linked to the disappearance of CIA agent Mike Kingman, who is in hiding with a flash drive he got from an operative in Iran. Savich has to moves Olivia to a safe house, protect her CIA interference, and uncover the conspiracy going on.

The dual plots work, but it can be confusing remembering and keeping every character straight in the beginning for those new to the series or from someone who has not read every book in the series. As the narrative switches between story lines in each chapter, readers can figure out who is trustworthy and work on keeping track of everyone until they become better acquainted with all the characters. After a powerful opening followed by a slower start introducing the cases, the novel quickly becomes a fast paced read and both story lines have plenty of twists to keep your attention. Mia does figure out in too-large-a-coincidence who are the suspects in Serena's disappearance in the first third of the novel.

Fans of the series will already know the agents, although character development will feel light for a new comer to the series. You can appreciate the novel without reading previous books in the series as long as you realize you might not understand the complete history of everyone right away. The slow start serves to provide much of the needed background in order to better appreciate the plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The Perfect Family

The Perfect Family by Robyn Harding
8/10/21; 352 pages
Gallery Books

The Perfect Family by Robyn Harding is a highly recommended domestic thriller.

Thomas and Viv Adler by all outward appearances are the perfect family. They are parents to two children Eli, 20, and Tarryn, 17. They are both successful and live in a beautiful home. So why is someone targeting them? They have woken up to find that eggs and rotten vegetables were hurled at their home. They have found excrement on the front door handle, woke up to slashed tires, and have had a smoke bomb tossed into their front yard. The police believe it is all from bored teens playing pranks on them, but each of the Adler's have reasons to believe that it is something more. Everyone in the Adler family has secrets that they believe could be behind the pranks and the fear is that the assaults will escalate.

After the opening when an unnamed individual is planning to set fire to the side of the Adler's house, the narrative alternates between the point-of-view of each character. All of their secrets and worries are revealed in their chapters. And these people have some major secrets! They are all terrified that their secrets will be revealed and people will know that they are not the perfect family. Basically: Viv is worried that Thomas is having an affair, and, oh, by the way she's an interior designer who has a little problem with kleptomania; Thomas is being blackmailed after a wild night at a bachelor party; Eli is back home after his sophomore year of college and he is dropping out after an incident he is keeping secret; Tarryn is secretly camming at night when she puts on lingerie and a wig and is being paid to talk to strangers online.

All the characters are fully realized and developed. They are all flawed and concerned about appearances in their own way. It becomes clear that each of them has an awful secret that may be responsible for the assault on their home. This means readers have a whole lot of people to consider when trying to figure out who is attacking the Adlers. And the secrets and suspects seem to multiply, as does the paranoia of each character, as the novel progresses. At the same time not all the actions of the characters are completely believable

This is a well written domestic thriller that is addictively intriguing and compelling. The pages will fly by as you want to find out what each character is thinking about in their narratives. It is fascinating to see a family so worried about outward appearances when a little soul searching and honesty would go a long way to lessening some of their anxiety. Although some secrets are shared, the plot has enough twists that there are no real answers until the final chapters where we get a lot of answers up to the surprising final denouement. There are a plethora of pop culture mentions that I found distracting, although they do establish the pretentious nature of the family.

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

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Ophelia Girls

The Ophelia Girls by Jane Healey
8/10/21; 368 pages
HMH Books

The Ophelia Girls by Jane Healey is a recommended atmospheric novel that examines the inner lives and actions of a mother and daughter as teenagers.

Set during the summer in a large dilapidated country house in Kent, England, The Ophelia Girls follows the inner dialogue and obsessions of mother Ruth Hawkins and her seventeen-year-old daughter Maeve. The novel alternates between two time periods. In 1973, Ruth and her four friends were obsessed with pre-Raphaelite paintings and taking pictures of them recreating the drowning of Ophelia. The end of the summer results in tragedy, which is alluded to early on and not fully disclosed until later in the novel. At the same time, Ruth is struggling twenty-four years later with being a wife and mother to Maeve, a teen and young twins while living in the home she inherited from her father, with whom she was estranged. 

Seventeen-year-old Maeve was ill with cancer for years. She is now in remission in 1997 and is supposed to be enjoying her teenage years, but she is unsure of how to proceed after years of fear and constant attention of her parents and medical staff. What she does realize is that she feels attracted to Stuart, a friend of her parents who is staying with them for the summer. Stuart is a well-known professional photographer purposefully acknowledges her attraction and he encourages her by giving Maeve the attention she craves. He begins to ask her to pose for photos.

The point-of-view switches between Ruth and Maeve. These are realistic characters whose personalities and action are those of authentic people. This authenticity means the characters are self-centered, secretive, aloof, inattentive, and unhappy. Maeve feels she is grown-up, but is also experiencing uncertainty. Readers will recognize immediately that her parents should have been more attentive to Maeve and realize that it wasn't hovering to know what she is feeling and doing. Stuart is who cannot be trusted and is simply creepy. It is hard to see his actions as anything but those of a predator and accept that Maeve's parents didn't realize it. 

This is a beautifully written, descriptive novel with an ethereal, Gothic quality at times. The plot moves at a steady pace. The descriptions pull you in, as does the foreboding sense of impending doom and uneasiness in both time lines. The actual themes presented in the novel, however, are not necessarily enjoyable. The connection between Ruth and Stuart and then Maeve and Stuart was nefarious and unpleasant, resulting in a disagreeable, odious feeling right at the start which tainted the rest of the novel. If this was Healey's intention, she was successful, but at time it made the prose difficult to read. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HMH Books.