Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Someone Saw Something

Someone Saw Something by Rick Mofina
4/30/24; 400 pages
MIRA

Someone Saw Something by Rick Mofina is a highly recommended family drama centered around the search for a child who has gone missing and presumed to be abducted.

News anchor and journalist Corina Corado asks her sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, Charlotte, to pick up her six-year-old little brother, Gabriel, from school because their father, Robert had to delay his flight and is unable to do so. Charlotte and Gabriel walk through Central Park on their way home so he can have a text flight of a plane he made. As the plane flies over a hill, Gabriel runs off to get it and Charlotte, who is texting, says she'll be right there waiting for him... but he doesn't come right back. Charlotte runs to find him and can't. The unthinkable has happened. Gabriel is missing.

A missing child and subsequent search and investigation is enough excitement to hold up a plot. Adding one complication, the hate mail Corina receives as a well known journalist is an understandable concern. But Mofina ups the ante to almost unbelievable levels. The number of secrets, twists, and extraneous directions the investigation takes is throwing everything into the plot, including the kitchen sink. The whole twenty-one year old "boyfriend" of your sixteen-year-old daughter thread could have been left out, as could Robert's big secrets.

The characters are portrayed as realistic individuals, except for maybe the whole withholding of major pieces of information that might be connected to the search for their SON. However, while reading your emotions will be running high as you wait for the characters to just tell the whole truth. 

Admittedly, it held my attention because of all the secrets and intrigue, but in the end I felt as if the main concern, Gabriel, was being buried under all the other plot threads and characters included in the narrative. This overload of extras that maybe were possibly connected with the investigation actually slowed down the novel and the main concern - searching for Gabriel. 3.5 rounded up. Thanks to MIRA for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Safe and Sound

Safe and Sound by Laura McHugh
4/23/24; 304 pages
Random House

Safe and Sound by Laura McHugh is a very highly recommended mystery following two sisters trying to find out the truth behind their older cousin's disappearance from their home in Beaumont, Missouri.

Amelia(Mimi) and Kylee were found safe upstairs in their bedroom when their teenage cousin Grace, who was babysitting them, disappeared. The sisters are now getting ready to leave the dead-end small town of Beaumont after high school graduation, just as Grace always told them to do. When the remains of a young woman are found on a piece of property outside of town, the sisters immediately wonder if it is Grace. There was so much blood found in the kitchen that night... As the girls begin to look into the identity of the body found they must continue to survive in a town that is cruel to young women and hope.

The narrative is told in the present day through chapters from the point-of-view of Amelia and Kylee while alternating chapters have the events from the past unfolding through Grace's point-of-view. This was a very effective plot device which serves to keep tensions high in both time periods. Readers know Grace disappears and is presumed dead due to the amount of blood at the scene. Seeing Grace grow up and her absolute devotion to her younger cousins establishes the close bond between the cousins. They were really as close as sisters.

Grace, Amelia, and Kylee are all believable, fully realized characters and you will want the best for them even while Grace is experiencing horrors of abuse by an uncle. There are so many layers of secrets lurking in both their families and with their friends. Additionally, the setting is a major character. Beaumont is a hard-scrabble, dead-end town where the best job is at the meat packing plant and it seems everyone is just barely scraping by.

The writing is absolutely wonderful, both descriptive and emotional. I marked several quotes, including one from an elderly former teacher, Mrs. Mummer: "When you're dying, Amelia, you remember your regrets. They crop up like stones in the river when the water gets low. Try to have as few as possible." For such a dark and desperate story there was one discussion that had me laughing, as it will others who know the Missouri/Kansas rivalry. (Condensing the discussion: What do you think it'll it be like? Living someplace else? / Probably something like when Dorothy lands in Oz. / Great. Maybe we'll get hearts and brains and courage. / That's only if you're from Kansas. We're from Missouri. We'll be lucky to get a can of Bud Light and a bootstrap.)

The final denouement was shocking and surprising, but also felt a bit incomplete. 4.5 rounded up. Thanks to Random House for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Next of Kin

Next of Kin by Samantha Jayne Allen
4/23/24; 336 pages
Minotaur Books
Annie McIntyre #3

Next of Kin by Samantha Jayne Allen brings back newly-licensed private investigator Annie McIntyre, 26, from Garnett, TX. In this highly recommended mystery she accepts a case helping someone find his biological parents, but it soon turns into much more.

Annie and her boyfriend, Wyatt, attend a prenuptial party for her cousin Nikki and her fiance Sonny Marshall. Annie is the maid of honor. The party is being given by Sonny's best man and adopted brother, Clint Marshall, a talented up-and-coming musician. After the party Clint comes in to hire Annie to find his biological family. He was adopted at age 4 and has some memories from his past. She quickly discovers that his father is a bank robber serving time and that he has a brother, sister and mother. 

Annie meets his brother, Cody. Soon after that, Cody is found dead and Clint disappears. Annie doubts the official verdict concerning Cody's death and wonders if it was a homicide. In this small town setting everyone seems to know everyone else as Annie sets off on her own dangerous investigation with some help from former county sheriff and her grandfather, Leroy, 85, and his former deputy, Mary-Pat Zimmerman.

This is a well-written, carefully plotted PI novel. The characters were portrayed as realistic, well-developed characters. The small Texas town setting adds an interesting atmosphere to the narrative as well as plenty of connections between characters.

It does start a bit slowly, taking time to work up some speed, but once it gets moving the pages will fly by. As my first Annie McIntyre, Next of Kin worked as a standalone. The ending absolutely surprised me. Thanks to  Minotaur Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Friday, April 12, 2024

The Backyard Bird Chronicles

The Backyard Bird Chronicles by Amy Tan
4/23/24; 320 pages
Knopf Doubleday

The Backyard Bird Chronicles by Amy Tan is a delightful illustrated love story dedicated to birds and bird watching. It is very highly recommended. This is an amazing book and I can't wait to buy a hardcover copy.

In 2016 Amy Tan began keeping journals with drawings about the birds she observed in her northern California backyard. The Backyard Bird Chronicles represents material from nine journals full of observations from September 16, 2017 to December 15, 2022. Most of the entries are observations or lighthearted notes, but a few more serious events are also included, like the 2017 salmonellosis outbreak among Pine Siskins. She observes and identifies the many birds, the problems like squirrels, crows, cats, etc. At the end is a list of all the birds she has seen in her backyard as of Dec 2022, and a selected reading list.

This is a spectacular book! I can't even explain how much I adored this book. I loved the charming personal, reflective, humorous observations about the birds, the information, and especially the sketches of the birds she seeing. Tan is the daughter of an ornithologist, which explains some of her knowledge, but she also adores watching the birds. 

Her devotion to feeding them, providing water, and creating a welcoming habitat for a wide variety of birds is inspiring. David Allen Sibley, the acclaimed ornithologist, wrote the foreword and writes that this is a "collection of delightfully quirky, thoughtful, and personal observations of birds in sketches and words." Thanks to Knopf Doubleday for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Lucky

Lucky by Jane Smiley
4/23/24; 384 pages
Knopf Doubleday

Lucky by Jane Smiley is a polarizing literary novel which covers decades in the life of a folk musician. It is recommended; highly for the right reader.

Jodie Rattler grew up in St. Louis with her mother and near her extended family. She first discovered she was lucky in 1955 when she was six years old and her uncle Drew took her to the racetrack. A roll of two-dollar bills were the physical representation of that luck and she keeps them near her and hidden for years. Jodie always had a love of music along with her family. When she is studying at Penn State in the 1969, her singing career takes off after one of her songs becomes a surprise hit. She does well in royalties and even better after her uncle Drew handles the investment of her windfall. This allows her to travel and even spend time abroad.

Many successful musicians of the time periods involved are mentioned throughout the novel. It is sort of a musical coming of age novel through the 70's and 80's (and on) pop culture, but the plot also focuses on Jodie's relationship with her family. There are a lot of lyrics for the songs Jodie writes included in the narrative and the impetus for the lyrics is part of the story. The actual quality/credibility of the lyrics is debatable. Along the way there are several times Jodie sees a high school classmate she refers to only as the "gawky girl." (It is later clearly revealed that the gawky girl is a stand-in for Smiley.) Jodie does settle down back in St. Louis to care for her mother and grandparents.

The writing is excellent and I was really enjoying this story of a woman's life. Sure, as a character Jodi can be a little self-involved and the plot does move slowly in parts, but there is also a nostalgic element to the narrative as it list musicians for years past that is appealing. 

What totally changes everything is the abrupt change in structure, tone, and voice in the final epilogue. How do you rate a book that abruptly changes directions to a stupefying ending? I keep stalling on writing a review, flipping back and forth on how I feel, and that is not a satisfying reading experience so I need to go with a neutral rating. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Monday, April 8, 2024

At the Edge of the Woods

At the Edge of the Woods by Victoria Houston
4/23/24; 256 pages
Crooked Lane Books
Lew Ferris Mystery #3

At the Edge of the Woods by Victoria Houston is akin to a cozy mystery set in the Northern Wisconsin woods and full of fly fishing along with a murder investigation. It is highly recommended.

In Loon Lake a local dentist Bert Willoughby is shot while practicing with his partner Robin Carpenter for an upcoming pickleball tournament. Sheriff Lew Ferris suspects that the bullet may have been a stray shot from hunters in the area, but the investigation shows that Willoughby was an extremely unlikable man. The local rumor mill and retired men's coffee group (via Doc Osborne) have plenty of inside information and there is more than one local who could be a suspect in eliminating him. 

After meeting Jane Willoughby and her daughter, it becomes clear that the whole family is unlikable. Lew is intent on solving the mystery and always hopeful to get in some fishing in too. Then another murder may change the questions she needs to ask.

This is always a fun, fast-paced murder mystery series to pick up and At the Edge of the Woods is a nice addition to the series. (The other two are Wolf Hollow and Hidden in the Pines.) These novels are akin to cozy mysteries, only set in Wisconsin and feature a lot of talk about fly fishing as well as other outdoor pursuits. There is enough information provided in the narrative that you can easily enjoy the books as a stand-alone read, but they do compliment each other.

Known characters are back and make an appearance, if even briefly, as Lew investigates. The pace is fast and the short length makes this a quick, comfortable, and entertaining series to pass the time with. Thanks to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Darling Girls

Darling Girls by Sally Hepworth
4/23/24; 368 pages
St. Martin's Press

Darling Girls by Sally Hepworth is a domestic psychological thriller following three survivors from events that happened in a foster home. It is a highly recommended page turner.

Jessica, Norah, and Alicia are sisters by choice and remain close after a traumatic childhood. They met at a foster home called Wild Meadows Farms and all endured abuse from foster mother, Holly Fairchild. Twenty-five years have passed and the house is currently being torn down to build a McDonalds. The excavation has unearth human remains and now the police have asked Jessica, Norah, and Alicia to return to Port Agatha for questioning. Returning to Port Agatha and talking to the police brings back the pain.

The narrative follows the point-of-view of four characters -the three sisters and an unnamed person talking to a psychiatrist. Additionally there are past and present timelines so we meet the sisters as adults and also as children enduring the machinations of Miss Fairchild. As adults they are all still suffering from some repercussions from their childhood traumas and the past chapters detail what happened to them.

The well-written plot is very intriguing, twisty, and will immediately grab your attention. However, where the novel really shines is in the fully-realized characters who resemble real individuals with faults and fails. They immediately garner your empathy and support. The subject matter, abuse of foster children, is weighty and grim. The bond the three sisters-by-choice have, based on their shared experiences is more intense and enduring than that which many biological sisters share. Even Miss Fairchild felt like a real person

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of these sisters in both the present and the past. The person talking to the psychiatrist is not revealed until later, but that story line is is also interesting, even though the psychiatrist seems incompetent. Included in the narrative are even some light moments of humor that help with the dark mood, as do the three large dogs. The twisty ending was a surprise but there was one reveal that actually fell flat for me and lowered my rating, but any Sally Hepworth novel is worth reading. Thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Extinction

Extinction by Douglas Preston
4/23/24; 384 pages
Forge Books

Extinction by Douglas Preston combines a compelling murder mystery and cutting-edge science in a Michael Crichton-esque plot. This excellent mind-blowing thriller is very highly recommended. One of the best!

The exclusive Erebus Resort is located in a hundred-thousand acre valley of in the mountains of Colorado. Through genetic manipulation Erebus specializes in the "de-extinction" of Pleistocene megafauna, like woolly mammoths, giant ground sloths, Irish Elk, giant armadillos, and the indricothere. These prehistoric animals have had their genes for aggression removed for the safety of the visitors at the resort.  For their honeymoon Mark and Olivia Gunnerson go backpacking at Erebus to see the prehistoric animals there and then disappear in the night.

County Sheriff James Colcord notes the obvious attack on the couple left behind a copious amount of blood but no bodies, so Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent Frances (Frankie) Cash is called in to track down the perpetrators. Since Mark is the son of a wealthy billionaire, the first assumption is a gang of eco-terrorists are trying to send a message about the resort.

This is a gripping murder mystery full of extinct creatures, perpetual tension, breathtaking twists, and shocking developments that gallops at a heart-stopping pace. Once you start reading the ingenious narrative you will not want to stop until you reach the unpredictable, stunning final denouement. Once the plot took off, I was following in what ever direction Preston led me. I kept trying to predict what was going to happen and was surprised at every turn.

What made Extinction even better (if that were possible) are the variety of fully realized characters and personalities that populate the novel. Frankie and Colcord are great characters and the interaction between the two is appealing even when they seemingly clash. All the supporting characters are presented as unique individuals and you will easily distinguish between them while reading as fast as possible to see what in the world is going to happen next.

Additionally, much like Crichton, Preston has done his research and knows the science behind the direction his plot takes. At the end of the novel Preston shares the real science and the direction it is taking right now. Great characters, action-packed plot, and expert plotting and pacing make this one of the best novels of the year. Thanks to Forge Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

A Calamity of Souls

A Calamity of Souls by David Baldacci
4/16/24; 496 pages
Grand Central

A Calamity of Souls by David Baldacci is a courtroom drama/mystery set in southern Virginia in 1968 during the desegregation of the South. It is an exceptional, very highly recommended novel.

Jack Lee is a white lawyer from Freeman County, Virginia, who agrees to defend Black Vietnam veteran Jerome Washington who has been charged with murdering his employers, Leslie and Anne Randolph. Even though it is clear considering obvious evidence that Jerome is innocent, it soon becomes apparent that local prejudices and outside forces are all working against Jack and Jerome to ensure a guilty verdict and they won't hesitate to use physical violence. Then Desiree DuBose, a Black lawyer from Chicago sent by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, arrives in Freeman County. She has devoted her life to furthering the causes of justice and equality for everyone and enters into a partnership with Jack to defend Jerome. The two work together to fight against a system that doesn't want to accept change of their prejudicial beliefs.

In the author's notes at the opening of the novel Baldacci explains that this novel has been in the works for over a decade and contains autobiographical elements in the story. This was a tumultuous time in history when George Wallace was running for president and vehemently opposed desegregation and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been murdered. The historical context is an important element to the whole narrative.

The characters are all wonderfully, fully realized and come to life in A Calamity of Souls. The well-developed characters help set this one apart. The actual narrative is a subject that has been told before in several other excellent novels and this is a welcomed edition to that group. Baldacci's experience as a lawyer help make the preparations for the defense and the trial come to life. There are plenty of twists and evidence revealed to surprise you and make this an exceptional novel that should resonate with most readers.

Once you start reading you will not be able to put A Calamity of Souls aside. It will hold your complete attention and the pages will just fly by. In fact, I was so engrossed in the narrative that after I finished it I was surprised to see the length of the novel. Thanks to Grand Central for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Pay Dirt

Pay Dirt by Sara Paretsky
4/16/24; 400 pages
HarperCollins
V. I. Warshawski Series #22

Pay Dirt by Sara Paretsky is recommended for die hard fans of the long running series featuring Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski.

Friends of V .I. Warshawski send her to Lawrence, KS to recharge and relax while enjoying a weekend of college basketball. Angela, one of her protégées, is playing.  After Angela's housemate Sabrina goes missing, V.I.  agrees to help in the search for the young woman. V.I. faces plenty of local suspicion but no local support in her search. When Sabrina is finally found suffering from an O.D., V.I. gets her to the hospital. Then the FBI gets involved and question V.I. about her kidnapping the girl and a murder.

This 22nd outing of the P.I. is full of the expected twists and turns in an intricate, complicated plot. Warshawski is an intelligent, tough, tenacious, and insightful main character who does not give up even when everything is seemingly against her. The investigative part of the narrative is interesting and will hold the attention of most readers.

Looking back over the years to the novels much earlier in the series, I can recall great pleasure reading each new V. I. Warshawski novel. That has started to lessen with recent novels and I believe the series and I are sadly going to go our separate ways now for several reasons. Again, Paretsky makes sure Kansas is depicted as a backward place (getting tired of this habitual plot element). Present day Lawrence, KS, doesn't remotely resemble the city she portrays in the novel. Additionally my fluid rule that authors need to keep their editorializing on personal social/political views on contemporary topics to themselves as it is divisive and diminishes the novel applies. Thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with an advance reader's copy via Edelweiss. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Nothing But the Bones

Nothing But the Bones by Brian Panowich
4/16/24; 336 pages
St. Martin's Press
Bull Mountain #4

Nothing But the Bones by Brian Panowich is a prequel in the Bull Mountain series set in McFalls County, Georgia, following the Burroughs family. It definitely works as a stand alone and is highly recommended Southern crime fiction.

Nelson “Nails” McKenna is a giant of a man who was born with a deformed hand and can be slow on the uptake. He has worked for local crime boss Gareth Burroughs since an incident when he was a teen. When Nails goes too far defending a young woman one night, leaving a man dead at a roadhouse,  Burroughs sends him off with $8,000 cash to Jacksonville, Florida where he's supposed to call a man who will help him. On the start of his trip to Florida, he discovers the young woman he was protecting, Dallas Georgia, is hiding in his car. The two take off together to Florida and become fugitives.

Nails and Dallas are both being pursued by others, including Alex Price, brother of the dead man, and Nails' friend Clayton Burroughs. These two are at crossed purposes and have very different goals in mind. As they are on the run, Nails and Dallas develop an agreement but their alliance is plagued by Dallas' bad decisions.

Nothing But the Bones is full of interesting characters and laden with corrupt people and organizations. It is a tension-filled, engaging, fast-paced plot that will hold your attention throughout. There are twists and surprises along the way, some more credible than others, but all of them serve to propel the narrative forward. Thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Monday, April 1, 2024

You Know What You Did

You Know What You Did by K. T. Nguyen
4/16/24; 384 pages
Dutton

You Know What You Did by K. T. Nguyen follows Annie “Anh Le” Shaw, a first-generation Vietnamese American artist as she falls into a downward spiral of OCD and compulsive behavior after her mother dies and other deaths follow. It is a recommended mystery/thriller for the right readers.

Annie’s mother, a Vietnam War refugee, made Annie's childhood one of control and emotional abuse that left Annie with lifelong trauma. Annie escaped to college where she met and married Duncan, a wealthy journalist. The two now have a fifteen-year-old daughter, Tabitha (Tabby) and are living a comfortable life. When Annie's mother, now a hoarder who was living in their carriage house, dies suddenly, Annie’s life begins to fall apart and she reverts to some of her previous behavior, including OCD, memory problems, and self-doubt. She begins to distance herself from people, including Duncan and Tabby. When her beloved dog dies quickly after her mother and another death happens. Annie can't tell what is going on around her.

Annie is an incredibly unreliable narrator and the sharing of her thoughts during her downward spiral is a slow-paced nightmarish jumble of confusion, memory loss, paranoia, and compulsion. Annie can't tell what is going on around her. The slow pace continues for a greater portion of the novel and, since it is being seen through the eyes of an untrustworthy and perhaps unstable narrator, staying with the plot does require some conscious effort.

To be honest there was not one character in the novel that I liked, trusted, or connected with. There were also several things that occurred that will be difficult for some readers. Twists happen toward the end but careful readers may predict the direction this one is going. 

The quality of the writing is actually very good. Nguyen did an excellent job depicting a fifteen-year-old teen girl, which gives her major writing points. 3.5 rounded down for me but could easily go up for the right reader. Thanks to Dutton for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Hard Aground

Hard Aground by Brendan DuBois
4/9/24 (originally published 4/3/18); 232 pages
Severn River Publishing
Lewis Cole #11

Hard Aground by Brendan DuBois is the highly recommended eleventh novel in the Lewis Cole series. In this outing Lewis finds himself "hard aground" as he recovers from major surgery.

Due to an experience when he was in the Department of Defense, Lewis Cole has to check his body for tumors. At the end of the last novel in the series, Storm Cell, a tumor was found. In Hard Aground Lewis is home bound as he recovers. This doesn't stop the action and suspense from coming to Cole. He is hearing someone entering his house at night, but there is no evidence of it. Then he has this couple who claim to be historical/genealogy researchers repeatedly coming to his door. The biggest news is that antiques dealer and a local historian Maggie Tyler Branch was murdered and it may be tied to the opioid epidemic.

There is more action than one would expect in a novel where the main character is home bound, recovering from major surgery and having to deal with draining the wounds. It is always good to see long time characters Felix Tinios, Paula Woods, and Det. Sgt. Diane Woods back. They are all also helping nurse Cole in his recovery. Hard Aground has a Rear Window quality to it. Our main character is very limited in what he can do, but his mind is still active and he can piece information and clues together.

This is a more subdued novel compared to others in the series. There are still several mysteries presented that will come to satisfying resolutions.I really love this whole series. Thanks to Severn River Publishing for providing me with an advance reader's copy. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

A Better World

A Better World by Sarah Langan
4/9/24; 368 pages
Atria Books

A Better World by Sarah Langan is set in a dystopian future where safety from crime, weather events, and even future bombs can be found if you are allowed to live in a company town. This genre-bending novel is highly recommended.

The Farmer-Bowens are in a financial crisis. Linda Farmer is a pediatrician and Russell Bowens is a numbers genius who was laid off from the EPA. When Russell is offered a trial position with the eco-engineering firm BetterWorld a company that makes Omnium, a material made from recycled ocean plastics. the family gets to move to the company town of Plymouth Valley (PV) in South Dakota. They will be safe there in the walled-off city. The air is clean, food is available, the schools are good for their teenage twins. The family can live in PV for one year and then at an annual review their future there will be voted on.

Once there, the family realizes that they have no idea how to fit in with these people. The residents are very polite but remote to the whole family. Also questionable is the group of customs and beliefs called Hollow that the residents follow religiously. And then there are the strange birds called Caladrius that are everywhere.

The narrative unfolds through Linda's point-of-view. Also, scattered throughout the novel are excerpts from a handbook and a future research paper. Linda is a fully realized character, but the focus is truly on the odd behavior in the town, the weird festivals, and the family trying to fit in to a closed society that doesn't allow newcomers in so easily - unless you get connected with the right people.

A Better World is a well-written dystopian, mixed with a cult-based thriller, a mystery, and a horror novel. The atmosphere is creepy as are most of the residents. I'm not a huge fan of explicit horror, but do appreciate the creation of an eerie perception. If there were just a few safe places left in the world and in order to fit in and stay you had to participate in their weird cult-ish actions, would you do it? Participation and acceptance means food, shelter, and safety from the outside world. 

Tied into the plot are some pertinent topics people are questioning today, especially the safety of plastic on the health of individuals and GMOs. Thanks to Atria Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via Edelweiss. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers by Samuel Burr 
4/924; 368 pages
Knopf Doubleday

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers by Samuel Burr is a tale about the joy of puzzles and a young man solving a puzzle and finding himself. It is a highly recommended feel-good novel.

As a baby Clayton Stumper was left in a hatbox on the steps of the Fellowship of Puzzlemakers in Bedfordshire, England. Now 25, he was raised by Fellowship founder Pippa Allsbrook, the esteemed and prolific maker of crossword puzzles, along with the other older members, all enigmatologists living together in the commune. Now Pippa has passed away, and Clayton wants to know who his birth parents were. Lucky for him, Pippa left a series of puzzles that will provide him with the answers he seeks if he can solve them.

The narrative follows dual story lines, alternating between the past, when Pippa started the Fellowship of Puzzlemakers, and the present, as Clayton solves the puzzles and clues left for him. The past allows us the meet Pippa and the other members of the Fellowship before Clayton arrived. It's a look into who raised Clayton. The present follows Clayton's quest to find out who he is as an individual apart from the Fellowship.

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers is a sweet-tempered, gentle, cozy tale that has pleasant, appealing characters, and many types of puzzles. The main focus of the novel are puzzles of all types and varieties. They are embedded in the novel and part of all plot threads in the narrative with the characters circling around the puzzles. The pace is slow, almost glacially at times, but if you adore puzzles and novels about finding your family, then this will be a good choice. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Gathering

The Gathering by C. J. Tudor
4/9/24; 352 pages
Penguin Random House

The Gathering by C. J. Tudor is a so-so procedural set in Alaska where the investigation looks into a murder that may be a vampyre slaying. It is a mystery buried under a lecture.

In Deadhart, Alaska, a fifteen-year-old boy is found murdered. His throat was ripped open and his blood was drained. Residents blame the Colony nearby, a place where vampyres reside and want a cull of the vampyres. However, in 1983, the Vampyr Protection Act was enacted and declared them a protected species. An expert is called in, homicide detective Barbara Atkins, who has her PhD in forensic vampyr anthropology. She will investigate the murder and, if she determines a vampyre is responsible, she can authorize a cull. The residents are angry and want retribution.

Barbara Atkins is an interesting character and the ending makes it clear that a sequel should be expected.

This wasn't a favorite Tudor novel. First, as a British author, perhaps look a little bit closer into the culture, word usage, etc. in the USA. Then, yet again I need to caution an author to keep their personal political/social views on contemporary topics to themselves as it diminishes and dates the novel. Additionally any lecturing in a novel to your readers is also disconcerting. The polarization presented early on in the novel targeted specific religious and political groups was an off-putting distinction that made this an almost DNF. Making different groups you perhaps disagree with the antagonist and stand-in for fear, racism or discrimination between people was unnecessary. Thanks to Penguin Random House for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Sleepwalkers

The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas
4/9/24; 304 pages
Simon & Schuster

The Sleepwalkers by Scarlett Thomas is a recommended epistolary novel that eventually becomes a mystery.

In the opening lengthy letter Evelyn (Evie) is writing to Richard,  her new husband. The two are on their honeymoon on a Greek island and staying at the Villa Rosa, which Richard's mother booked for them. Isabella, the hotel's owner makes it obvious she plays up to Richards and actively despises Evie. It also seems clear that Evie and Richard dislike each other and there are weird things going on at the hotel.

The narrative opens through a very lengthy letter written by Evie to Richard. It is at this point many readers are going to realize that the novel seems populated by unlikable characters and that they will have to suspend disbelief because the letter is so very, very, extremely lengthy. Also trying of my patience were the sudden gaps in the flow of the letter. Richard eventually gets to reply to Evie with a letter of his own along with various other notes, audio transcripts, and letters.

Normally I tend to like epistolary novels, but that is when the letters are actually the length of normal letters or even long emails or text messages. I appreciate the interplay between them to build a plot and different points-of-view. I also like it when the voice of the various characters are distinctive rather than all in the same dialect and tone. The writing is very descriptive but it is also similar in every piece of writing. I struggled along to the end where there are some twists and some closure but also open questions. Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance reader's copy via . My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Rush

The Rush by Michelle Prak
4/9/24; 272 pages
Crooked Lane Books

The Rush by Michelle Prak is a fast-paced debut psychological thriller set during a storm in the Australian Outback. It is highly recommended.

Quinn Durand has been clearing out her family house on their property which is for sale when she hurries to leave with her dog Bronte and head back to the Pindarry pub where she stays and works before the rain gets bad and flooding occurs. On the way home she finds a man lying in the road and stops. Back at the pub Matt, Andrea, and Ethan, their three-year-old son are serving their last customers, a group of bikers before they begin to prepare for the storm. At the same time a group of four young adults, Hayley, her boyfriend Scott, Brazilian Livia, and Dutchman Joost, are setting out on a trip from Adelaide straight north to Darwin and heading right into the storm. Tension is already beginning to rise in the group and they may not be prepared for what is to come.

The narrative reads like a movie and the action pulls you in, propelling the action forward just as quickly. This is a perfect example of a tension-packed "just-one-more-page" novel. Once you start reading, you will continue reading until the ending. It's a rapidly developing plot and each new development adds to the tension. You may have to suspend your disbelief a time or two, but, just like with a movie, you will go along with it to see what happens next.

The characters are all mainly caricatures of a type of person without a lot of nuance, with perhaps the exception of Andrea, but this choice works well in the novel due to the fast paced action and the cinema-like feel to the novel. The rain becomes a major character too, further isolating characters as the danger increases. There is one surprising twist that you won't see coming because it is very well done. Thanks to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Daughter of Mine

Daughter of Mine by Megan Miranda
4/9/24; 368 pages
Simon Element 

Daughter of Mine by Megan Miranda follows a daughter returning to her dysfunctional family after the death of her father. It is an exceptional, very highly recommended psychological family drama/murder mystery. Daughter of Mine is another excellent, un-put-downable thriller by Megan Miranda.

After leaving a decade earlier, Hazel Sharp returns home to the small town of Mirror Lake, North Carolina, for her father, longtime police officer Detective Perry Holt's, memorial. As the family, her brothers, Caden and Gage and her Uncle Roy, hold the memorial, across the lake a car is being pulled out of the water. A long running drought has lowered the water level at the lake, leading to the discovery of a submerged car. The mystery of the car disturbs Hazel, as her mother disappeared years ago. Even so, after the memorial Hazel was planning to return to Charlotte where she has a building-renovation business, but then she learns she has inherited the house and her brothers have planned to go through it, so she quickly returns. That's when another vehicle is found submerged in the water behind the house.

The tension is high and suspicions are rampant in the atmospheric mystery Daughter of Mine, perhaps Miranda's best novel to date - which is saying a lot. There are several mysteries occurring in the plot. New mysteries include the disappearance of Caden's wife, Jamie, why Hazel inherited the house, and odd occurrences happening in the house. Old mysteries involve the disappearance of Hazel's mom, the two cars pulled from the lake and the clues people seem to be giving Hazel without actually saying anything. The small town, where people have been around for generations and know everything about you and your family plays a major role in the narrative. The ongoing drought is also a noteworthy part of the novel and each chapter opens with how many days it has been since it rained.

Hazel is a fully realized character and immediately a sympathetic one. You will know her mother left her with just a simple note and that Perry Holt cared for her like a father. The sibling rivalry between Hazel and Caden is evident and Gage, as the older brother, also has a preset role in the family dynamics. There are doubts and uncertainty about the strange things happening and Hazel is unsure who can be trusted to help her or give her honest answers.

The writing is extraordinary. The scenes are all perfectly described and place you firmly in the scene. The tension and family dynamics work together to create a heightened sense of caution and even alarm. Secrets abound and I had all sorts of guesses and suppositions about what was happening along the way, but my guesses weren't even close. The final denouement is phenomenal. Thanks to Simon Element for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Reaper Follows

The Reaper Follows by Heather Graham
4/2/24; 320 pages
MIRA
Amy Larson & Hunter Forrest FBI Series #4

The Reaper Follows by Heather Graham is the recommended fourth novel in the investigative series featuring Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent Amy Larson and FBI Special agent Hunter Forrest as they continue their investigation into a series of crimes linked to the four horsemen in the Book of Revelations.

The discovery of a woman's hand and arm along with other body parts lead Larson and Forrest to the fourth Horseman. They discover an oil drum that tipped over and spilled out the body parts. It is quickly determined that there are dozens of oil drums, all filled with body parts that could only have been cut up by human hands. Larson and Forrest along with other investigators must find out who these people were and any connection between them. When they find a small pale horse they know: The fourth horseman of the apocalypse rides a pale horse—and his name is Death.

After a very strong start the plot slowed down to a crawl which tamped down my interest in following the investigation. It was not completely to my benefit that I only read the first book in the series and missed the second and third. There is a lot of information about the Florida Everglades and the Miccosukee tribe which was interesting, but interfered with the action and pacing of the plot. Admittedly, the identity of the antagonist was also easy to determine. For those who enjoy it, expect some romance along with the investigation. If you've been following the whole series, The Reaper Follows will likely appeal more to you and give you closure. Thanks to MIRA for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Never Come Back

Never Come Back by Joe Hart
4/2/24; 285 pages
Thomas & Mercer
Nora McTavish #2

Never Come Back by Joe Hart has Oregon family advocate and former forensic investigator for CPS Nora McTavish investigating two very different domestic cases. It is a very highly recommended domestic thriller.

Nora is settling into her new practice at Sanctuary Family Advocacy when Gayle and Joel Pearson ask for her help. Gayle’s grandmother, Arlene Jones, has taken custody of their daughter Ivy, seemingly based on their intellectual disabilities. The two can prove that they are good parents and have done everything asked of them. Nora accepts their case and finds them a lawyer, no charge, but it's not as easy as it seems.

Next Nora receives a phone call from childhood friend Tess Hannover Grayson. They haven't spoken for years. It seems that Tess's husband, Professor Neil Grayson, was arrested and later released for the murder of student Allie Prentiss. The two are in the middle of a divorce and custody dispute over nine-year-old Kendra (Kenny). Nora visits Tess to catch up and offer support but soon becomes embroiled in the custody case that is increasingly turning treacherous.

This is an exceptional followup to the first Nora McTavish novel, Where They Lie. She continues to be a very sympathetic, trustworthy protagonist and her character is further developed in this outing. Nora did have a difficult childhood, to say the least, but her background also gives her insight and empathy into the cases she works, as does her time with Child Protective Services (CPS) as a forensic investigator. She is really a great character with keen insight into human character and an eye for details. I'm looking forward to more investigations by Nora.

The pace is fast and includes plenty of discoveries, disclosures and twists in the plot. What seems obvious quickly escalates into a dangerous situation and those involved may not be as reliable as they seem to be. The suspense and tension rise with each chapter and the action will thoroughly hold your attention. While it is a domestic thriller, it also delves into the territory of a psychological thriller and a murder mystery, making it even more critical and dangerous. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

She's Not Sorry

She's Not Sorry by Mary Kubica
4/2/24; 336 pages
Park Row Books

She's Not Sorry by Mary Kubica is a very highly recommended psychological thriller full of twists.

Meghan Michaels is working as an ICU nurse and a single mother to her teenage daughter, Sienna. When a new patient, Caitlin, arrives at the ICU in a coma with a traumatic brain injury, Meghan learns that she jumped from a bridge and fell over twenty feet to the train tracks below. After Meghan is assigned to care for her, she becomes increasingly close to the family. Then, when a witness comes forward saying Caitlin was pushed, her case suddenly becomes attempted murder. At the same time, there has been an increasing number of women who have been attacked in her neighborhood by an unidentified man which increases Meghan's concern for her and Sienna's safety. Adding to her worries is Nat an old friend she's reconnected with who seems to be in an abusive relationship.

Truly an un-put-downable novel, She's Not Sorry is a lightning-fast-paced psychological thriller with multiple jaw-dropping twists, unreliable characters, and a heart-stopping ending that all come together to make this Kubica's best thriller to date. I totally understand you'll want to race through it, reading as fast as you can, but Kubica makes every word count so pay attention to the details while reading. She also does an excellent job creating a menacing, creepy atmosphere and the feeling of dread increases with every chapter.

There are three mysteries involved and the novel is presented in two parts. The characters are all fully realized and you'll think you know them but hold that thought. It may be an illusion as the narrative takes one turn after another. The writing is exceptional, the twists plentiful, and the presentation was pitch-perfect. This is one psychological thriller that you will want to read. Thanks to Park Row Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

 

The North Line

The North Line by Matt Riordan
4/2/24; 320 pages
Hyperion Avenue

The North Line by Matt Riordan is an adventure thriller following a commercial fishing crew at the Bering Sea in the early 1990's. It is highly recommended.

Due to a poor choice in his junior year at Danby, Adam has lost his lacrosse scholarship. College officials will allow him to return and finish his senior year, but he need $26,000 for tuition. A friend sets him up to join a commercial fishing crew at the Bering Sea. He has no previous experience, but very quickly learns what the brutal, dangerous job involves. Surprisingly, Adam finds an authenticity in the lifestyle, and even finds the relentless work and way of life invigorating. There are unforeseen challenges coming and an untrustworthy boss, both of which will force Adam to face who he really is.

The descriptions of life at sea and the work involved are extremely well done and will pull you right into the narrative. Once you start reading you will likely want to keep reading right to the end. This is truly a dirty job that people do for one reason: to earn a lot of money quickly. Reading what the job encompasses will make you question if it is worth it, but it clearly is for Adam. He needs money for college and this is his only hope. It begs the question: what would you do in the same situation?

Adam is a complex, fully realized character. The work aboard the ship and interaction with others help establish who he is and also the skills he has that others wouldn't realize. The action does slow a bit in the middle, but picks up the pace again to the dramatic ending. For Fans of "The Deadliest Catch" and novels pushing a man to his limit, this would be an excellent choice. Thanks to Hyperion Avenue for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

What's Not Mine

What's Not Mine by Nora Decter
4/2/24; 248 pages
ECW Press

What's Not Mine by Nora Decter is a recommended coming-of-age novel.

The summer Bria Powers turns 16 she is living with her aunt Tash and bestfriend/cousin Ains because her mother is long gone, her father is in jail for drug-dealing, and his girlfriend she was living with died from an overdose. During the day Bria and Ains babysit Ains’s younger siblings. Then they both go to work at the Burger Shack. After work Bria is personally struggling with drugs, alcohol, a bad relationship with a man she calls Someboy, and trying to find her place in the world. As if that isn't enough, some male is texting her pornographic images.

Bria is not a likable or trustworthy narrator. She will, however, elicit your sympathy because she is such a mixed-up broken teen who needs more support than she is receiving from those around her. She is in a rough situation that would leave many teens struggling. The hot, dry summer and the plethora of insects invading the area help set the desperate tone.

The pace is steady, but slow. There is some dark humor, but I was left mostly feeling depressed by the novel. (It feels like a YA novel, although it is not presented as one.) The novel does succeed in capturing the sad social realites of fentanyl infiltrating the community and the descriptive passages concerning the natural events of the summer are quite well-written. It does have a satisfying ending. Thanks to ECW Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks

A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks by David Gibbins
4/2/24; 304 pages
St. Martin's Press

A History of the World in Twelve Shipwreck by David Gibbins is a highly recommended history based around 12 shipwrecks written by an expert in both archaeology and diving. In the prologue Gibbons makes it clear that the twelve shipwrecks he covers provide a springboard for looking at the wider historical context. Shipwrecks are unique because it represents a collection of objects used at the time of the shipwreck and thus can be closely dated. This can offer new historical insights into the past. 

The shipwrecks examined are: The Dover Boat constructed in 1575-1520 BC; Royal cargoes at the time of Tutankhamun in 14th century BC and the Uluburun wreck; a Classical Greece wreck off the Aegean coast of Turkey from the 5th century BC;  a shipwreck in the Mediterranean from the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD; 6th century AD Christianity and early Byzantium; Tang China, the Land of Gold, and Addasid Islam in the 9th century AD;  11th century AD Viking warship of King Cnut the Great; the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII, 1545;the Santo Christo de Castello a Dutch ship from 1667; The Royal Anne Galley, 1721; the HMS Terror, 1848; and the SS Gairsoppa, destroyed by a Nazi U-boat in the Atlantic during World War II. (The final version will include illustrations, an index, bibliography, endnotes, and resources.)

These shipwrecks are the starting point to a larger discussion of world history. It is well-researched and includes many ties into a wider historical context of the time the ship would have been sea worthy. The people, the cargo, the spread of the materials they carried and the beliefs they held are all tied together with the 12 significant shipwrecks and the insight they provide into the times in which they sailed. 

Admittedly, I found some of the shipwrecks and their historical context more interesting than others, but A History of the World in Twelve Shipwreck will appeal to those who enjoy history and especially maritime history. Thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Everyone Is Watching

Everyone Is Watching by Heather Gudenkauf
3/26/24; 320 pages
Park Row Books

Everyone Is Watching by Heather Gudenkauf is a very highly recommended locked-room thriller that is absolutely riveting from start to finish.

Five contestants have been chosen to compete for ten million dollars on the game show One Lucky Winner which will be live streamed across the world. The competition is held on a secluded estate in California and the rules are strict - no contact with the outside world and you can't leave the property. The contestants are given the monikers of The Best Friend, The Confidant, The Senator, The Boyfriend, and The Executive. Quite quickly, two facts become clear: they were purposefully chosen for a reason and someone is out for blood.

Set all incredulity and disbelief aside and prepare yourself for a well-written, twisty, unrelenting, immersive, and dangerous locked-room thriller. The story is told through the point-of-view of three women:  Maire Hennessy, a 40-year-old single mother with a chronically ill child (The Best Friend); Camille Tamerlane, a 38-year-old therapist and popular podcast host; and Fern (Fernanda) Espa, the host of the show and assistant to the woman who is the demanding executive producer of One Lucky Winner. We also learn their backstories and gain valuable insight into how the seemingly random contestants are actually interconnected.

Everyone Is Watching is fast-paced, tension-packed and thoroughly compelling from start to finish. The stakes, ten million dollars, are high, but it soon becomes clear that the challenges are very dangerous and made for revenge. What is really on the line is their reputations and exposure of secrets they hold. Thanks to Park Row Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via Edelweiss. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Truth about the Devlins

The Truth about the Devlins by Lisa Scottoline
3/26/24; 384 pages
G.P. Putnam's Sons

The Truth about the Devlins by Lisa Scottoline is a very highly recommended domestic psychological suspense novel following a dysfunctional Philadelphia family. This is an excellent, un-put-downable thriller that will hold your attention from start to finish.

TJ Devlin is the youngest son and the greatest disappointment in his family of lawyers. Both his parents, Paul and Marie, and two older siblings, John and Gabrielle, are lawyers in the successful family firm of Devlin and Devlin. TJ, on the other hand, is an ex-con and, after rehab, has maintain his current sobriety for two years. The only employment he has been able to find is with the family law firm in a make-work job with the title of investigator. 

When his older brother John is frantic because he thinks he murdered Neil Lemaire, an accountant he confronted with proof of embezzlement, he privately turns to TJ for his help. TJ agrees to help him and this act of brotherly fidelity sets into motion a complicated entanglement of schemes and deception, especially after John falsely tells his family that TJ is drinking again. At the same time, he is helping Gabby on a heart-breaking pro bono case.

TJ is a likable, genuine character who is honest about his many flaws and failings. He is determined, intelligent, tenacious, but also self-effacing and realistic. This is truly a family drama and the interpersonal dynamics in the Devlin family play an important role. TJ remains loyal to his family, even when it is to his own detriment. His father is a disagreeable, unlikable character and John is an arrogant, pompous jerk. His mother, Marie, and sister Gabby are both likable, agreeable characters.

As expected, the writing is exceptional and descriptive. The pace is fast and compelling for most of the novel, although there is a more even pace in the middle. The narrative is full of action and suspense, containing a good dose of family drama and hysterics, as well as several twists along the way. The Truth about the Devlins is truly an un-put-downable, just one-more-chapter book that had me staying up way-too-late to finish it. The pages flew by. There are several shocking surprises and twists along the way. You will be cheering TJ on as it seems more and more mud is slung in his direction while he is trying to do his best.

The Truth about the Devlins is another winner from Scottoline! Thanks to G.P, Putnam's Sons for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.