Wednesday, March 30, 2022

A Family Affair

A Family Affair by Robyn Carr
4/5/22; 336 pages
MIRA Books

A Family Affair by Robyn Carr is a highly recommended family drama.

Anna McNichol has just lost her husband Chad. Her three adult children, Jesse, Michael, and Bess are at his memorial service, as is a young pregnant woman that Anna doesn't know. She could be a patient of his or what Anna really suspects is that Chad was having an affair with her. He had been unfaithful before and he was keeping some sort of secret. At the same time Anna's mother's health is declining. While she and her children are dealing with their grief, Anna learns the truth about the young woman at the service and it will change her family.

The novel mainly unfolds through Anna's point-of-view, but there are chapters through her children's perspective too. The focus of the plot is the year after Chad's death. Grief brings with it a trunk full of issues and added to these are secrets, struggles with mental health, relationship issues, dementia, aging, anger, and even more secrets. The characters all work together and individually to overcome their issues which all leads up to a positive ending upholding family. The pandemic enters into the plot too and that is a disappointment as is the depiction of Bess.

This is a complex family drama and the characters are basically portrayed as realistic individuals struggling with their own flaws and shortcomings along with grieving. The infidelity of Chad is not covered as realistically as it would most likely actually unfold in a family. As a therapist, Chad should have considered the result of his actions on his family. Learning what they do about Chad as a husband and father would be an earth shattering experience for most people. Additionally, all the characters are professionals rather than average people in average jobs. There are some poor choices made that are likely due to their grieving.

The quality of the writing is actually excellent. Even when what is written might bring some other questions to mind, Carr captured some real truths about the complications of relationships, families, and aging. Early in the narrative there is some profound insight about cheating men who say they are unhappy to explain away affairs. Honestly, it is a bit too much of a romance for my tastes, but the forgiveness that Anna is willing to embrace to help her and her family move on is admirable. 3.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Club

The Club by Ellery Lloyd
3/1/22; 320 pages

The Club by Ellery Lloyd is a recommended locked room murder mystery set in an exclusive resort off the English coast.

Ned Groom is CEO of the Home Group, which has several members only clubs across the world. They are known for catering to their very elite clientele, so when the Island Home is opened up off the coast of England, the three day launch party is a coveted invitation. Island Home is located on a private island and is accessible by car only by a causeway at low tide. In the prologue two unidentified people are driving on the causeway when, as the tide rises, they realize they are not going to make it. Naturally a death on this island is big news, so more than one is unthinkable.

The narrative is told from the third person point-of-view of four characters: Jess, a new housekeeping manager; Annie, the head of membership; Nikki, Ned's personal assistant and one of the founding members; and Adam, Ned's younger brother and a co-founder. Additionally excerpts from a Vanity Fair article are inserted at the end of each chapter.

This follows the formula for a classic locked room mystery. While very well-written, after the opening car scene the pace slows way down and readers will have to have patience for being introduced to fictional celebrities, background information, and gossip. And there is a plethora of background information and characters to learn. For the purposes of a mystery following this closed-room structure, it might have behooved the husband-and-wife writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos who are Ellery Lloyd to make the introduction of the characters and their stories more succinct to keep the plot moving along which would assist in holding a readers interest.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, March 28, 2022

The Shadow House

The Shadow House by Anna Downes
4/5/22; 320 pages
Minotaur Books

The Shadow House by Anna Downes is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Alex Ives flees Sydney with her two children to a three month trial rental in Pine Ridge, an ecovillage in the Australian countryside. Her teenage son, Ollie, 14, scoffs at living in a commune while her baby, Kara at 8 months is teething and cranky. Pine Ridge is quiet and tranquil, surrounded by forests and the residents seem friendly. Alex is sure her family will be safe here and can start over, but unsettling things begin to occur almost immediately when Alex finds a dead bird in a box on their doorstep. She eventually learns about the stories of the Pine Ridge witch, which she is sure is just a legend, but as new disturbing things happen, she begins to wonder if there are some facts behind the rumors.

In alternate chapters the story of Renee Kellerman is told. She and her husband, Michael once owned the farm that became the site of Pine Ridge. They have a teenage son, Gabriel.

While waiting for the two narrative threads to join together, Downes creates a great deal of tension as new alarming and frightening incidents occur. Adding to the sense of an impending disaster are the ominous dreams Alex is having while she is sleep deprived from Kara's unrest. It is clear from early on that Pine Ridge may not be the bucolic and peaceful setting Alex believed it would be when they moved there. There are secrets held by many characters and the tension rises with each chapter as some new alarming incident happens.

The characters are basically well-drawn and realistic. Downes does an especially credible job writing the teenage characters. While we don't learn right away why Alex was fleeing, which is a plausible reason, it is still less straightforward why she would chose an ecovillage as her refuge, simply based on the handsome man who told her about it. Admittedly, her character is a little less appealing due to poor decisions. Starting a relationship with Kit, the man who started Pine Ridge, was farfetched. After mumbling at her to not move to an ecovillage without any conviction about the lifestyle, I sort of wanted to yell at Alex to at least wait until she has weaned her baby before casting about for someone new. She doesn't make good choices.

It does create a creepy atmosphere, but loses it's way after the start. The action does slow down in the middle of the novel. The ending leaves something to be desired. 3.5 rounded up

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

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Candy House

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
4/5/22; 352 pages

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan is a very highly recommended imaginative novel of our world, but different. The story is told through an interlocking narrative structure by multiple and inter-generational characters. This novel is brilliant! 

Remember: Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free.

Bix Bouton is a wildly successful tech giant of Mandala. What he is searching for now is eluding him; he is seeking a new idea or advancement. When he encounters a conversation group meeting after a talk at Columbia, he joins while disguised and finds the direction his next advancement will take.  "Own Your Unconscious" allows people to download their memories giving them access to every memory they have ever had. They are stored in a Mandala Cube. This evolves into the ability to upload your memories to "the Collective Consciousness" which then gives you access to the thoughts and memories of everyone in the world who has also shared with the collective. 

Millions are seduced, but not everyone. There is a problem that emerges about what to do with so much information. Additionally, not everything or every story needs to be told. There is a counter group of "eluders" who understand the temptation of the candy house and  resist it while "counters" are those who track and exploit the measurable tendencies of people.

This is an ingenious, brilliantly written novel, technically accomplished and stylistically masterful. The three parts of the novel are titled: Build, Break, Drop. The chapters are all like interconnected short stories that build the narrative and plot through the voices of a variety of characters and narrative styles. Chapters range from omniscient to first person plural to a duet of voices, an epistolary chapter, an exchange of emails and a chapter of tweets. Characters from A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) reappear here, but The Candy House is a stand-alone novel.

The characters and their children are all developed as complex individuals as the novel covers a large span of time. The voices and points-of-view of the characters are all unique. The advancement of the plot is told through the voices of all these characters in the unique chapters. It is impressive how the narrative threads in each chapter begin to coalesce to create a complex plot and compelling accomplished novel. I am in awe. One of the best books of the year!

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

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Out There: Stories

Out There: Stories by Kate Folk
3/29/22; 256 pages
Random House

Out There: Stories by Kate Folk is a highly recommended collection of fifteen short stories examining odd and disturbing peculiarities existing during common experiences found in alternate bizarre realities.

These speculative fiction stories have a science fiction/alternate reality/magic realism quality to them. The ordinary experiences in the stories are understandable to our sensibilities, but they all have an absurdist twist toward the realities they really represent. For example dating app sites being infiltrated by blots, handsome biomorphic humanoids posing as real men, that Russian hackers use to steal data;  a medical facility for a nighttime bone-melting disorder; a house that requires an exacting and time consuming level of care; a tourist finding a way to survive a sudden violent revolution; and a void that is slowing expanding and erasing Earth. 

All of the stories have been previously published and the writing is excellent. The stories can be humorous and horrifying at times. Folk's gives her characters development, and the plots in her short stories are compelling and vary widely. As with any short story collection, there are hits and misses. Out of the fifteen stories presented in the collection all were basically successful (with varying degrees of satisfaction) except for two stories which were absolute misses for me.

Stories included are: Out There; The Last Woman on Earth; Heart Seeks Brain; The Void Wife; Shelter; The Head in the Floor; Tahoe; The Bone Ward; Doe Eyes; The House’s Beating Heart; A Scale Model of Gull Point; Dating a Somnambulist; Moist House; The Turkey Rumble; and Big Sur.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House via NetGalley.

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Younger Wife

The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth
4/5/22; 352 pages
St. Martin's Publishing

The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth is a very highly recommended novel of domestic suspense set in Melbourne, Australia.

Tully (Natalie) and Rachel are already concerned as they cope with their mother Pamela Aston's deterioration with early-onset Alzheimer’s and her move into a nursing home. When their father Stephen, a heart surgeon, announces that he is going to marry again to a much younger woman, Heather, after divorcing their mother, his daughters are aghast. Clearly she must be after his money. Tully and Rachel have several concerns, including the fact that Pam occasionally talks about how life with Stephen was awful, maybe even implying it was violent. The sisters both have several other personal issues they are grappling with as well. Heather is also beginning to doubt the wisdom of wedding plans with Stephen.

Opening with the wedding between Heather and Stephan where someone is gravely injured out of the sight of observers, the tension and questions immediately multiply right at the start. The narrative then jumps back in time and covers the events leading up to the fateful wedding. Information is provided through the point-of-view of Tully, Rachel, and Heather. All of these women have secrets they are hiding and are dealing with their own issues. These characters are all depicted as real people, with talents, fears, failings, secrets, and issues galore.

This novel is full of secrets, lies and deceit as the characters question the truthfulness of others and confront their own issues. Readers can carefully follow clues and carefully take note of what is real and what is implied in order to piece together what is truly happening. Hepworth does an exceptional job creating tension while telling this story. The pages will fly by while the drama increases and you know from the opening, that something bad is coming up quickly. Once you get there, all bets are off.   

The writing is exceptional, the suspense is palpable, and I rushed to finish reading The Younger Wife. The ending has sparked some emotional reactions for some readers, but while it was unexpected, I really appreciated Hepworth's writing even more after it was done. 4.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillan Publishers via NetGalley.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

All the White Spaces

All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes
3/29/22; 368 pages
Atria/Emily Bestler Book

All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes is a so-so exploration, horror, and coming of age novel.

Jo lost her two brother in the great war so she transitions to Jonathan Morgan and with the help of her friend Harry stows away on an expeditionary ship of the world-famous explorer James “Australis” Randall on his trip to Antarctica. There is tension and trials aboard the ship, clearly evident during Jonathan's efforts to prove his worth. When the ship is burned, the men must set out into unexplored and inhospitable land. If that isn't enough, it also seems that something or someone is threatening the safety of the group.

Wilkes knows a lot about ships and the events that would occur on a long voyage in a cold, hostile environment. The whole crew is haunted by something in their past. This helps in the creation of the frigid atmosphere and the disorientation and mental deterioration of the group as supplies run low.  The tension increases as the plot unfolds. This is a slow moving novel and actually not that frightening. There are a lot of characters, but a list is provided at the opening of the novel to help you keep track of them. The writing style didn't encourage a connection with any character.

Sorry, but this is not comparable to The Terror. I like my historical fiction to keep true to the actual historical times rather than take current sensibilities and place them in the past. Having Jo become Jonathan adds nothing to the plot but does appeal to current sentiments. The actual technicalities of being a biological woman among men is not addressed nor is any disguise or adaptation, besides having short hair. I forced myself to finish this one, but probably should have skipped it. The synopsis didn't actually describe the novel well.

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Songs by Honeybird

Songs by Honeybird by Peter McDade
3/29/22; 250 pages
Wampus Multimedia

Songs by Honeybird by Peter McDade is a highly recommended novel about a break-up, a band, and a talking dog.

It's been two weeks since Ben and Nina broke up. They were planning to move together when Nina confessed to Ben that her dog, Sid, talks and is actually a reincarnated being. This was more than Ben was willing to accept. Ben, a Doctoral candidate, is researching the South's first integrated rock band, Honeybird, for his dissertation. The band ended abruptly after a tragic fire and information on the band is scarce.

The narrative alternates between Nina and Ben's point-of-view and covers their past relationship and their current activities as they move on after the breakup. While Ben is researching and uncovering information on the band, Nina begins to seek the truth about her father's death. The characters are well-developed and their portrayal is authentic and empathetic. Many will be able to relate to both of them. Even supporting characters resemble the real friends and family members many of us have.

The writing is very good and allows the plot to unfold in an honest manner while also examining their past relationship. Admittedly, the whole talking dog direction of Nina's story arch hindered the complete enjoyment of the narrative for me. Alternately, I relished Ben's chapters and following his research on Honeybird and the past. 3.5 rounded up

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

Monday, March 21, 2022

A Relative Murder

A Relative Murder by Jude Deveraux
3/29/22; 336 pages
MIRA Books
Medlar Mystery #4

A Relative Murder by Jude Deveraux is a highly recommended mystery and the fourth book in the Medlar series.

Sara Medlar, best selling author and murder investigator, has returned to her home in Lachlan, Florida. Living with her is her niece, Kate, and friend Jack Wyatt. They are known as the Medlar Three around town due to the murder investigations they have solved together.

The current investigation is a bit more personal. Sara hoped the truth about her family would never be exposed, but with her brother Randal being released from prison, everything is about to get real. Kate has always been told by her mother, Ava, that her father died, but Randal is sure to return to Lachlan and find her. Sara played a part in Randal's conviction, so she is afraid Kate will hold this against her. Then Jack is appointed as a deputy so the sheriff can take an unexpected vacation (and hopefully miss Randal's return). Adding to to the plot before all the real confusion sets in is the dead body found in a friend's barn.

This is can be read as a standalone mystery even though it is fourth in the series. Enough information is provided that you won't feel as if you've missed something. This is a murder investigation, but it is somewhat of a lite-investigation, more entertaining than foreboding. There is some humor,  a few twists, secrets revealed, and family drama galore. The characters are well developed and vary widely from easy to relate to, personable, intelligent, annoying, and goofy. All in all a nice mix of personalities wrapped up in a satisfying mystery. This is a nice, quick enjoyable mystery to read. Those who are following the series will be happy to see this new addition.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books via Edelweiss.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Secrets We Share

The Secrets We Share by Edwin Hill
3/29/22; 304 pages

The Secrets We Share by Edwin Hill is a highly recommended twisty thriller.

Sisters Natalie Cavanaugh and Glenn Abbott are very different from each other but they share a traumatic past. In 1995 when they were 14 and 12 their father was murdered. The two have moved on now and don't discuss it. Natalie is a police detective who drinks too much. Glenn is a food blogger who is about to release her first book. When Glenn's daughter 12-year-old daughter, Mavis, discovers a body in an abandoned building near her school, the two sisters are pulled into another murder investigation, but this time the questions and new information keep piling up and pretty soon almost everyone is a suspect.

The pluses are The Secrets We Share is a truly twisty, unpredictable novel that will hold your attention and keep you guessing throughout. The minuses may be the extraordinary number of twists and the plethora of new information uncovered that changes everything. It all begins to feel a bit excessive by the end. Your enjoyment may very well be contingent upon your tolerance of a copious number of new revelations. It is a well-written novel and all the twists are integrated into the plot. There might be a few that cause some head shaking, but basically the twists work.

The characters are all portrayed realistically, but they are almost all suspects at one time or another, so don't get too attached to anyone, with the exception of Mavis (and maybe Natalie). You are allowed to care for her while reading on to see how everything else plays out. It's best to go into this one without a lot of additional information beyond knowing that it is definitely worth reading.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Kensington via NetGalley

Saturday, March 19, 2022

What Happened to the Bennetts

What Happened to the Bennetts by Lisa Scottoline
3/29/22; 400 pages
Penguin Random House

What Happened to the Bennetts by Lisa Scottoline is a very highly recommended heart-stopping thriller.

Jason and Lucinda Bennett along with their daughter Allison, son Ethan, and dog Moonie are driving home from Allison's lacrosse game when an annoying truck tailgating them turns into a car jacking and ends in shocking violence. Allison is shot, as is one of the carjackers. The Bennetts are then visited by the FBI and told that they must immediately go into the witness protection program. The carjacker who was shot is the son of George Veria, the head of a notorious dangerous drug-trafficking organization. The surviving carjacker, John Milo, is blaming Jason for the shooting. Now they will be targeting the Bennetts. 

They agree to enter the witness protection program while still deeply mourning Allison. They later learn soon after they left their home, someone set fire to their home and John's business. Lucinda's business was trashed. Friends and neighbors know nothing of the events that have them hiding, which results in the spread of disparaging rumors and speculation. All the Bennetts can do is follow the FBI's rules and view this without responding - until Jason begins to suspect that they aren't be entirely truthful with him and decides to take things into his own hands.

What Happened to the Bennetts is an un-put-downable novel that held my rapt attention throughout. It is both a complicated mystery/crime drama as well as the depiction of a family tragedy. There are definitely two parts to this compelling novel. There are the surviving family members trying to understand why this is happening to them and then there is Jason suspecting something else is afoot and taking matters into his own hands. Under the heavy burden of mourning without any support from friends and away from the comfort of their own home and routines, the family is crumbling. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a family member will understand the deep sadness and the seven stages of grief the Bennetts are trying to work through and how repetition of stories and memories helps. The second part of the novel is a tense action-packed thriller.

The narrative is told through Jason's point-of-view and he is a credible, believable, character. He is a court reporter who was cleared to work at Gitmo for a time, so he has some skills. He is a loving father and husband who is trying to protect his family while working through some heartbreaking personal information. The lengths he goes to in order to uncover the complicated schemes, the antagonists, expose the truth, and protect his family is astounding. What Happened to the Bennetts is a gripping, very highly recommended heart-stopping thriller.

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

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
3/15/22; 272 pages
Tor Books

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi is a very highly recommended hilarious and action packed science fiction novel. I really enjoyed this one!

Right when New York City is facing lockdowns, Jamie Gray is fired as a marketing director during at füdmüd (FoodMood) by the insufferable owner/ boss Rob Sanders, and ends up being a 'deliverator' (driver) for them because it is the only job available. When making a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, he recognizes Jamie and ends up recommending going to an interview for a job at KPS. He describes it as an animal rights organization where he needs someone who can lift things. Jamie can certainly do that. What he doesn't tell Jamie is that the animals are not on our version of Earth, but in an alternate parallel Earth. The endangered animals, Kaiju, are mountain-sized Godzilla-like creatures (thus the name). KPS stands for the Kaiju Preservation Society.

This is an enjoyable, hilarious, adventure novel full of funny, snarky quips, incredible action scenes, references to other science fiction novels, and the enjoyable "that's a great name for a band" game. It is a read-in-one sitting book because you won't want to stop reading and, well, it's a short novel. Scalzi says in the afterword that he meant for this to be a fun novel and at that he certainly succeeded. This is a stand-alone novel and would make an excellent movie.

I saved several passages that made me laugh and gave me great pleasure. I'll share a couple that don't need a language warning: "They have vegan cheese." "No, they don’t. They have shredded orange and white sadness that mocks cheese and everything it stands for." and this gem, “When you finish your training and survive your first mission on the jungle floor, you and I can sing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ as a duet at karaoke,” Tagaq said. “Until then, you learn.” She handed the shotgun to me. “Let’s start with this.”

Jamie is a great character, intelligent, witty, snarky, and I immediately felt a soul-connection to. Much of this is due to experiencing a company reorganization at the beginning of the pandemic which left me in a similar position, a huge pay cut, a change in job title, but in my case the expectation to do the same work and all during a time when there were no job options available. When imagining Rob Sanders, I did project a very specific physical appearance to him. While there isn't a great deal of in depth character development, they are all portrayed as realistic individuals and you can easily distinguish between the characters. Sanders is really more of a caricature of an antagonist, but, obviously, it worked for me and I gave him additional traits on my own.

As for my fluid rule that authors need to keep their editorializing on personal social/political views on contemporary topics to themselves and out of books to extend the longevity of the novel, well Scalzi's gonna Scalzi. Most readers will know opinions will be present but at least he's talented enough to integrate it into the story and make it a somewhat acerbic mirror of the situation during the pandemic. However, time has passed since it was written and many of the comments do feel dated now at publication, so my rule still stands. Scalzi gets a pass for the sheer pleasure and enjoyment The Kaiju Preservation Society provides.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tor Books via NetGalley.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Long Weekend

The Long Weekend by Gilly Macmillan
3/29/22; 352 pages

The Long Weekend by Gilly Macmillan is a recommended psychological thriller.

Ruth, Jayne, and Emily, are all traveling for a weekend getaway to Dark Fell Barn, an isolated guesthouse in the north of England. The husbands have a long term friendship that spans years back to their school days and this is the catalyst for the group get together, so it is disconcerting when all their husbands have to delay their arrival by a day. Also missing is Edie, the only female in the group of friends. Her husband who was part of the group of friends died suddenly and she is not attending. When the women arrive at the remote location, they find accompanying a bottle of champagne a note from Edie telling them that one of their husbands will be killed before they return home.

With a powerful storm moving in and no phone or cell service, the women are truly isolated and increasingly uncomfortable with the situation. They are all have secrets and none of these women would chose to be friends without the relationship of their husbands. Ruth, married to Toby, is a physician who recently gave birth and is descending into alcoholism. Jayne, married to Mark, is a former military intelligence analyst and has PTSD. Emily is much younger than the others and married to Paul, who is the oldest. Due to a difficult childhood, she is struggling with insecurity and trust issues.

The narrative is told through multiple viewpoints, including the three women, the farmer who owns the guest house, and an unidentified person who has set a maniacal plan into motion. There is a confusing lack of transition between narrative voices in the composition which distracts from the novel until much later, after you can tell whose voice it is. There are are only three chapters and no obvious breaks between points-of-view.  This structure while using the different point-of-view to propel the plot forward was confusing until you had a firm idea who are the different voices.

There isn't one of the characters who is particularly likable, but they are all well-developed. The atmosphere is tense and that tension increases throughout the novel to a histrionic level. The premise isn't entirely original, the format the story is told in is initially confusing, the characters are annoying, but for some reason, perhaps the actual quality of the writing and descriptions, I kept reading. This one is hard for me to rate. 3.5 rounded down

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Recovery Agent

The Recovery Agent by Janet Evanovich
3/22/22; 320 pages
Simon & Schuster
Gabriela Rose #1

The Recovery Agent by Janet Evanovich is a very highly recommended thriller that is full of adventure and laughs.

Gabriela Rose is a recovery agent, or insurance fraud investigator, it all depends upon the job. She is hired to find lost heirlooms, treasures, or any missing asset. In this first outing of a new series Gabriela is working to help her family and their neighbors to repair the damage in the little town of Scoon, S.C.. She's using a map made by her pirate ancestor, Blackbeard, that is reputed to show the location of a long-lost treasure and the Ring of Solomon. The location of the treasure is in the jungles of Peru. The only catch is that her ex-husband, Rafer, is coming along to assist.

Even though it is full of coincidences and you know everything is going to turn out okay even in the most dire of circumstances, this is one enjoyable, fun, and laughter filled romp around the Caribbean, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, New York City, and California wine country. I laughed aloud multiple times while reading and enjoyed every second of this farcical adventure story. Take this comical exchange for example, one that left me guffawing: "I have children and cats. What will become of them?” “You’re married?” Gabriela asked. “No... I just have children and cats." Sometimes you just need a novel that is full of adventure and humor.

Gabriela Rose was introduced in a Stephanie Plum novel, Fortune and Glory (#27) and she is a great new character. She’s witty, intelligent, reliable, cool under pressure, able to think on her feet, and well trained in weapons of all types. She's not scared of snakes, getting dirty,  or bad guys. Gabriela is simply a delightful character to meet and I'm thrilled about it. Sure, she's not a well-drawn character full of depth and insightful comments yet, but that will come with time. Her character is introduced and developed here, with room for more insight in the next book. She is an entertaining, humorous addition to Evanovich's line up of characters and I can't wait for her next adventure - with or without her ex, Rafer.

This is a perfect read for escapism, humor, suspense, and a bit of romance. Featuring excellent writing, the plot gallops at a fast pace and keeps racing right to the conclusion. There are twists and surprises along the way to keep you focused and entertained along with plenty of humor. 4.5 rounded up

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

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Burning Hope

Burning Hope by Wendy Roberts
3/22/22; 240 pages
Carina Press

Burning Hope by Wendy Roberts is a highly recommended paranormal murder mystery and the first book in a new series.

Red (Scarlett) Hooper has been in Hope Harbor, Washington, for a few months working at Pincher's Dollarama store to earn money to buy a new battery and fridge for her camper van Bubbles (named for the bubble decals that cover it). When Red stops in early one morning for coffee at the store and finds finds the body of Murray in the storage room she immediately calls 911, but as the only new person in this small town of over five hundred people, she is obviously the main suspect. It doesn't help when the police find evidence that seems to imply her guilt and uncover her connection to two other murder investigations. Red has the psychic gift of seeing visions through fire (and she also adopts a kitten) in this mystery.

This is a well-written, quick-paced novel that will hold your attention throughout. Obviously Red knows she is a suspect and she must do some investigating on her own if she wants to find the real killer. She also meets Noah is the process and the two become an item. There are several quirky, small town characters introduced along the way and Red's estranged sister shows up to give her some advice about her psychic powers.

Red is an interesting character who is apparently just learning how to really use her psychic abilities, although she has known they existed before this. (I'm not entirely taken with the psychic premise.) This is the first novel with Red as the main character, so while there is certainly backstory and good character development, Roberts has left plenty of room for more. This is a decent start to a new series. 3.5 rounded up

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

Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Lying Club

The Lying Club by Annie Ward
3/22/22; 432 pages
Park Row Books

The Lying Club by Annie Ward is a recommended psychological thriller.

Natalie, an office assistant at the elite private Falcon Academy, wakes up in her car in the school parking lot. When she tries to figure out why she was there, she sees a body lying in blood inside the school and she becomes the main suspect for the murder. The novel then jumps back in time six months and we meet Brooke, a wealthy entitled serial cheater and ardent supporter of her daughter Sloane, and Asha, a realtor and protective mother of her daughter Mia. Adding to the tension is the handsome assistant athletic director Nick, who is a smooth operator. Natalie is dating him, but is certainly not alone in this, Brooke wants him, and Asha needs him. Both Brooke and Asha have hired him to give their daughters private soccer lessons.

Pluses include solid and descriptive writing, a good opening scene that captures your attention, lots of secrets to disclose, basically a good solid story, a rivalry between the daughters and mothers, some interesting twists, and deceit and more deceit. Minuses are a very, very slow pace after a good opening, disagreeable and unlikable characters, characters who are caricatures of a type of person, a well-tread predictable plot with a familiar theme, Natalie's causal self-medicating, and it requires a serious commitment to stick with it through the slow parts. The pace doesn't pick up until the last quarter of the novel. I'm recommending this because many people will like it a bit more than I do. It is a good novel, but the plot is simply too slow and familiar for a higher rating.

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

Friday, March 11, 2022

French Braid

French Braid by Anne Tyler
3/22/22; 256 pages
Knopf Doubleday

French Braid by Anne Tyler is a very highly recommended portrait of a family. No one authentically portrays families in their frailties and strengths like Tyler. This exceptional novel provides uncomfortable truths, allows a few self-deceptions, little kindnesses, and little cruelties while depicting a Baltimore family.

French Braid follows the Garrett family over the course of sixty years. In the opening set in 2010, Serena and her boyfriend are in a Philadelphia train station when Serena thinks a man in the crowd is her cousin Nicholas. She hasn't seen him for years and can't really identify him. Her boyfriend thinks that there is some hidden secret about the distance between her extended family members. After this opening scene, the novel drops back in time to provide a portrait of the family over several decades.

In 1959, Robin and Mercy Garrett and their three children, oldest daughter Alice, her younger sister fifteen-year-old Lucy, and seven-year-old David, take their first and last family vacation. It becomes obvious why they have never taken a vacation. Robin is uncomfortable without a routine and worries about costs. Mercy simply wants to wander off alone and paint. Alice is the dependable one. Lucy is absent running around with an older boy she met. And quiet David is content playing with his plastic GIs he calls veterinarians. This vacation captures the essence of the family that will be confirmed over the years.

The narrative then unfolds over the years through the perspective of individual family members, capturing their lives and the distance between them. David remains distanced from his family, only occasionally joining family events, which are few and far between. This is where Tyler's unsurpassed skill and artistry is shown in her ability to create and develop realistic, sympathetic characters. The portrayal of each character is insightful as specific details are revealed and clarified over the years.

Tyler has been one of my favorite writers for years and French Braid perfectly showcases why. The quality of her writing is always perfect, finely crafted and exemplary. She always depicts her characters, who are average people, with such sympathy, warmth, insight and clarity. There is kindness as well as cruelty in their intermingled lives. Nothing huge or shocking happens in the plot, but much as in most ordinary people, there are small incidents and events that can add up. Characters do make some major choices, but it is presented as an event, not a crisis, and it is telling how the characters react to these crucial choices. Everyone should read this novel. French Braid is one of the best novels of the year.

The title comes from a discussion between David and his wife where he explains that families are like French braids. When you undo them, the hair is still in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterward. David said, “that’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2022


Curfew by Jayne Cowie
3/22/22; 320 pages
Penguin Publishing Group

Curfew by Jayne Cowie is a recommended dystopian novel set in a world where men have a curfew.

In Great Britain the Prevention of Femicide Act of 2023, commonly known as the Curfew Laws, were a result of known figure being murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Women revolted, resulting in the Curfew. Now all men starting at age 10 must be tagged and can be tracked. Men are not allowed outside from 7 pm to 7 am. Now women dominate workplaces, public spaces, and government and there is no gender pay gap. At the opening when a woman is found murdered in a park early one morning, the assumption is that the crime was committed by a woman because all men were still under Curfew when the crime occurred. The exception is one longtime police officer, Pamela, who thinks men should also be considered when looking for suspects. 

After the opening, we go back in time four weeks and are introduced to a cast of characters who may all be the victim from the opening. Sarah is a single mother who works at a tagging center. Her ex-husband is in prison for a curfew violation. Cass, their 17, almost 18, year old daughter, is angry at her mother for a host of reasons and openly debates the wisdom and need of the Curfew Laws at school. Cass's teacher, Helen, is going to cohab counseling in hopes of it being approved that she and her boyfriend Tom can live together and start a family. As we follow their movements leading up to the murder, we know any of these women could be the victim.

The narrative is told through the point-of-view of each women in alternating chapters. The only first person narrative is Pamela's as she investigates the murder. With the exception of Cass, the characters are all more caricatures rather than portrayed as real individuals. Cass really comes off as a know-it-all 17/18 year old. Essentially none of the men are to be trusted and there is no likable male character in the novel. Not all violence is by men. Not all women are nonviolent. And there are many more good, well meaning people than violent malevolent people. Inequity is unhealthy from either point-of-view.

The plot started out strong as the murder investigation in this dystopian society captured my attention, but it soon loss some of the opening appeal. While trying to reverse gender roles, the narrative overly simplifies them. Additionally, the plot fails to take into account the ability to work remotely, allowing men and women to work, earn a good living, while men still follow the curfew. Since none of the men are presented as likable, the premise of the plot begins to ring hollow. While the opening premise was compelling, the novel soon began to wan and get bogged down in the simplification of the characterizations and predictability of the plot. This started out as a five and slowly began to lose points.

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

Monday, March 7, 2022

A Ballad of Love and Glory

A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande
3/15/22; 384 pages
Atria Books

A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande is a recommended historical fiction novel set in 1846 during the Mexican-American War.

After Ximena Salomé's husband is killed during the conflict, she becomes a nurse and takes her gift of healing to the front lines of the war over the disputed Río Grande boundary. At the same time, John Riley, an Irish immigrant who is serving in the U.S. Army, but he and his fellow Irish immigrants were treated cruelly by the officers. He deserts and joins the Mexican force where General Santa Anna places him in charge of the St. Patrick’s Battalion, a unit made up of other Irish deserters. He and Ximena meet and fall for each other, beginning an affair that is surely doomed from the start.

This is a literary fiction as well as historical fiction, so it is technically beautifully written but inspired by historical events and figures. The novel does focus on the battles and details of the war. The narrative unfolds through alternate points-of-view and also provides additional information through some flashbacks. It is a slow moving novel at times as it focuses on the details of the war. Additionally, with the focus on the history, there is also a lack of character development and they were hard to connect to while reading.

Obviously Grande takes some liberties while following the facts in order to take the events and historical figures and turn the information into a novel. Historical fiction isn't normally a genre I would chose to read due to the trend to take modern sensibilities and project them into a historical context. Historical context of the era and times matter to me. There is some of this contemporary editorializing present and prepare yourself for an unfavorable view of America.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books via Edelweiss.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Cartographers

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
3/15/22; 400 pages

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd is a very highly recommended, outstanding, creative, and enchanting thriller/mystery. What an excellent novel!

It is no wonder Nell Young's greatest passion is cartography since her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a cartographic scholar who rules the map rooms at the New York Public Library. She was thrilled to be an intern at the library until the two had a terrible argument over a map that resulted in her being fired and summarily shunned by other serious cartographers. Nell had not seen or spoken to her father in seven years when she received a call informing her that he has died in his office and asking her to come to the library. While in his office she discovers in the hidden compartment in his desk the same map the two fought so bitterly over seven years earlier.

The map is ostensibly a worthless road map from the 1930's. The kind of map you would pick up at a gas station and throw in the glove box. Why would this map be hidden as if it was a treasure? Nell serendipitously slips the map into her bag. Later, while she is investigating, she discovers that this particular edition of the map is very rare and valuable, in fact, it may be the only known copy in existence. Did this seemingly innocuous map lead to her father's death? Nell's search for the truth broadens to encompass the map but also of her parent's college friends and her mother's death.

Shepherd does an exceptional job tying together elements of a thriller, mystery, and magic realism into a thoroughly engaging novel exploring the power of maps - and more. The question is asked throughout the narrative, "What is the purpose of a map?" and the answers are diverse. A novel about cartographers might not initially make you envision an un-put-downable thriller, but set that dubious thought aside. Yes, there are lots of maps mentioned, but it doesn't detract from the elements the comprise an excellent thriller. When the magic realism enters the narrative, you will already be fully invested in the plot and the outcome.

Nell is a wonderful fully realized character. She is passionate, intelligent, and determined. I quite liked her stubbornness and perseverance, even when facing danger. All the characters are obsessed and passionate about maps. At the same time they are all depicted as specific individuals and each stands out as their own person. You will easily keep track of who is who because of their unique portrayals beyond their love of all things related to maps.

I really enjoyed The Cartographers and it is a contender for one of the best novels of the year! Be sure to read this one!

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

Friday, March 4, 2022

Life for a Life

Life for a Life by Carol Wyer
3/15/22; 364 pages
Thomas & Mercer
Kate Young Series #3

A Life for a Life by Carol Wyer is a highly recommended procedural/crime thriller.

The novel opens with a family group heading to the airport when a horrible accident occurs, which will immediately capture your attention. Then we switch to DI Kate Young who is in the midst of an investigation into the death of Tobias Abrahams who was shot in the head at the train station. While she and her team are investigating this murder and other connected murders, she is also trying to bring  a case against corrupt superintendent John Dickson for the death of her husband Chris, who was working a case against Dickson. As the murders increase, the pressure is on the team to solve the murders.

This is book three in the Kate Young series and it is set in the Stoke-on Trent area and also on Blithfield reservoir. It is an exciting thriller and an engaging investigation as the tension rises as does the concern and dread, however, you need to know that there is a rather slow start before things really take off.  Although it works as a stand alone, I feel like it might have been best if I read the first two books before book three. I felt like I had been left out of receiving some important information that I needed to know to fully appreciate the novel. Nevertheless, it is a page turner with excellent writing that will hold your attention throughout. The ending is a cliff hanger which will have you waiting for the next installment.
Kate is a flawed character which makes her very relatable and sympathetic, but she is also an intelligent, determined, and astute woman. You know she is dedicated to her job in spite of her obsessions and mourning the death of her husband but to counter that she is also smart and clever. Emma and Morgan add to the story. They work well together and are loyal to Kate.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer via NetGalley.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Stepchild

The Stepchild by Nicole Trope
3/15/22; 252 pages

The Stepchild by Nicole Trope is a very highly recommended novel of domestic psychological suspense.

Leslie has Shelby, her 12-year-old stepdaughter, babysitting Millie, her three-year-old daughter, while Leslie runs errands. As she's leaving the grocery store, Shelby calls her and tells her that Millie is gone, missing; she ran away while Shelby was upstairs using the bathroom. Leslie rushes home and calls her husband Randall. They are all frantically searching for Millie. The police are called. Bianca, Shelby's mother and Randall's ex shows up, and then her new husband Trevor. It's every parents nightmare - a young child is missing and can't be found.

The Stepchild is told through the point-of view of Leslie, Shelby, and Ruth. Ruth suffers from agoraphobia, OCD, and a traumatic experience in the past. Her connection to the search for Millie is not discovered immediately but when it is slowly disclosed it will send your mind scrambling to find the clues and follow them. However, you will also know that Shelby is not telling the whole truth of what happened, which also will have you looking for clues in what she says. Leslie is frantic but she also didn't disclose every errand she was doing that day. Everyone has some secret, but Trope is very careful to disclose information slowly while providing plenty of misdirection.

Characters are depicted realistically and almost all of them will elicit sympathy. Some will evoke suspicion or doubt as new secrets are revealed and new clues exposed. You will not like all the characters, and your opinions will change several times as events unfold. Trope also handles the twists perfectly.

While I knew I would enjoy The Stepchild, I didn't realize how much I would enjoy it. The writing is clever and adroit. It is skillfully, tightly plotted and well-paced, which all serves to keep you reading just one more chapter as fast as possible. Almost every chapter ends with a cliffhanger or open question or foreshadowing which really works in this narrative to keep you guessing and frantically reading. The secret Shelby is holding and the cause of Ruth's pain is heartbreaking, but handled expertly and with great compassion. There was one element that was a bit unbelievable, but this is still an excellent novel. 4.5 rounded up

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