Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Perfect Sister

The Perfect Sister by Stephanie DeCarolis
7/16/24; 368 pages
Random House/Ballantine

The Perfect Sister by Stephanie DeCarolis is a highly recommended novel of psychological suspense set in The Hamptons and brimming with secrets.

Alex and Maddie Walker are sisters who have been there for each other no matter what throughout their unstable childhood and up until their mother's death. The two had a disagreement and now Maddie, a year older, has broken her life-long promise and will not be coming home for Alex's birthday week. Then, when Maddie doesn't even return Alex's phone calls, Alex takes matters into her own hands and head to The Hamptons where Maddie was supposed to have a job. 

When Alex arrives there she discovers Maddie was staying with a very wealthy family, The Blackwells, and they claim she headed back to New York City. Maddie's roommate there denies this and Alex suspects the Blackwells James, Katherine, and their two children, Theo and Lily, are all hiding what they know. They do allow Alex to stay in the pool house where Maddie stayed while she looks for her sister and reports her disappearance to the police. It seems that suspicions run high and secrets run rampant.

The well-written narrative unfolds through the multiple points of view Alex, Maddie "before", Lily, Katherine, Theo, James, and The Wharf. The chapters from Alex present day search and Maddie's from "before" are the most compelling, although the other narratives do add some depth to the story and potential suspects. I felt this technique is used quite effectively in The Perfect Sister and helped create tension and suspense.

This is a captivating plot, even though you do have to suspend disbelief several times, especially toward the end. I did this willingly because I had to know what happened to Maddie and who was responsible for whatever it was, which counts for a lot. Alex is a fully realized character and you will support her in her search. You'll also like Maddie. The whole Blackwell family veer more toward caricatures of a type of personality - the very wealthy.

The Perfect Sister must be the perfect choice for a summer read because I was engrossed in Alex's search for her sister and the truth. Thanks to Random House/Ballantine for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

In the Belly of the Whale

In the Belly of the Whale by Michael Flynn
7/16/24; 400 pages
CAEZIK SF & Fantasy  

In the Belly of the Whale by Michael Flynn is an epic science fiction journey that follows inhabitants aboard a colossal generation ship. This is a highly recommended final novel from Heinlein Medalist Flynn (1947–2023).

The Whale is a generation ship built within a hollowed-out asteroid that is set on a centuries-long journey to colonize the planet Tau Ceti and ensure the survival of the human race. Along with the hard science fiction elements involved with life aboard the unique space ship, Flynn closely follows the sociological changes that take place among the crew after generations spent on the ship.

After the Big Burnout, where a tenth of the ship has been basically abandoned, the original rules set in place for the efficient running of the ship and fair division of labor have now devolved into a stratification of the society with the privileged classes seeking power over everyone.  The differences in ideology, class, and cultural identity stirs up rebellion among the beleaguered crew, igniting the first whispers of revolution.

Admittedly, the list of personal at the start of the narrative was my friend as I tried to keep numerous names of characters and their stories straight. The main characters followed represent a selection of the diverse people across the society and include an detective, young lovers, politicians, and a non-commissioned officer, NCO. Once you can keep the unique names straight and come to know the characters, it makes following the plot a bit easier because you are no longer trying to keep characters straight.

There is no doubt that this is a dense novel, in scientific principles, language usage, the vision of the city in the ship, and the insightful examination of societal changes. It is a pleasure to read Michael Flynn's final novel as he is an intelligent writer who has always delivered a great story. Thanks to CAEZIK SF & Fantasy for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Shades of Mercy

Shades of Mercy by Bruce Borgos
7/16/24; 352 pages
St. Martin's Press
Porter Beck Mystery #2

Shades of Mercy by Bruce Borgos is a very highly recommended un-put-downable procedural/mystery/thriller set in the high desert of Nevada. This is the second book in the Porter Beck series and is just as excellent as the first, The Bitter Past. Shades of Mercy can most definitely also be read as a standalone novel.

The fentanyl crisis has hit Lincoln County when a childhood friend of Sheriff Porter Beck dies from an overdose. At the same time a hacker takes control of a military drone and explosively disrupts the 17th birthday party of Shiloah Roy, daughter of Jesse Roy, another childhood friend of Beck and a very successful rancher/owner of the Double J Ranch. After the drone hacking, Special Agent Ed Maddox of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations arrives. Jesse had a prize bull killed by the drone and Maddox is quick to want to compensate him for his loss.

Beck's investigation into the hacking leads him to a juvenile detention center where Shiloah’s friend Mercy resides. Mercy Vaughn is a brilliant 16-year-old hacker who is locked up with no computer access. Brinley (Brin) Cummings, Beck's sister, works at the center and she thinks Mercy is innocent, but Beck has his doubts after meeting her. Then the political intrigue increases when we learn that Dal Cho, a South Korean political consultant, has been ordered to go to Lincoln County and find Mercy.

Shades of Mercy is a lightning-fast-paced intelligent and complex procedural that keeps both the intrigue and the action sustained throughout. The action is truly non-stop as the complex case is investigated. Expect an immersive plot that moves quickly while the reader's engagement remains high. Twists abound in the narrative as discoveries and new information are uncovered. The setting is a major part of the story. Anyone who has lived in or spent time in the high desert of Nevada will understand the fire danger and the dry heat. 

I love all the characters Borgos has created. Beck is an intelligent, astute, and resourceful character. He's nobody's fool and can read people like a book. He also has retinitis pigmentosa which means he has trouble seeing at night and decreasing peripheral vision. Brin and all the other varied supporting characters are portrayed as unique, fully realized individuals. This outing introduces a canine companion, Columbo, who is a perfect addition to the cast of characters.

This is an absolute winner and a wonderful addition to the series. I'll be looking forward to another Porter Beck procedural! 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, July 8, 2024

The Lost Story

The Lost Story by Meg Shaffer
7/16/24; 352 pages
Ballantine Books 

The Lost Story by Meg Shaffer is a recommended fairy tale for grown-ups.

As fourteen-year-old friends Jeremy Cox and Rafe Howell went missing in the Red Crow State Forest in West Virginia. The two returned six months later with no explanation of where they were or how they survived. Now, fifteen years later, Rafe is a reclusive artist who still bears scars from that time but has no memory of what happened during those months. Jeremy is an investigator who specializes in finding missing girls. Emilie Wendell approaches Jeremy to find her older sister, Shannon, who went missing in the Red Crow Forest five years before he and Rafe. Jeremy remembers what happened when they were gone, but knows he must talk Rafe into joining them in entering the forest and the secret portal again.

The Lost Story is really a love story between Rafe and Jeremy set in an imaginary fairy tale world. The description saying C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia inspired The Lost Story threw me for a loop on this one. Yes, it applies as far as people enter a portal into an imaginary land, but the allegorical aspects are absent as are the charming details which make the series a classic. The setting is a fairy tale but none of the animals talk and are developed as characters. Sure, there are herds of unicorns but characters are simply seeing mythical creatures not talking to them. 

While I loved Shaffer's The Wishing Game, her current novel, The Lost Story, is entertaining but I'll admit to some disappointment as the plot progressed. I didn't want a love story, I wanted the promised magical adventure. (Or at least Fritz talking.) The narrative also has a Storyteller who jumps in and inserts comments as the plot unfolds. I'm not a fan of this choice. It is explained in the end, but still I was not a fan of it while reading the novel.

Jeremy and Rafe are fully realized characters but Emilie never reaches the same level of development. Her character was a favorite of mine and I would have appreciated a deeper dive into her development. Admittedly, I was also totally expecting Emilie's Fritz the rat to transform into a magical talking animal or at least a talking rat. Thanks to Ballantine Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

One Big Happy Family

One Big Happy Family by Jamie Day
7/16/24; 368 pages
St. Martin's Press

One Big Happy Family by Jamie Day is a highly recommended locked-room mystery featuring an assortment of disagreeable characters.

Nineteen-year-old Charley Kelley lives rent free and works as a chambermaid at The Precipice, a legendary, family-owned hotel on the coast of Maine. All of Charley's money goes toward providing for her grandmother who is in a care home with dementia. At least she has one friend at The Precipice, Rodrigo, the front desk manager. After the owner George Bishop dies, his daughters, Vicki, Iris, and Faith, are set to arrive at the hotel for the reading of his will even though Hurricane Larry is predicted to make landfall during their stay. Before the sisters arrive, Charley agrees to hide a young woman, Bree, in an empty room to keep her safe from her abusive boyfriend. In return Bree has promised to pay Charley to help her take care of her grandmother.

Once Vicki arrives with her husband Todd, it becomes clear that the weekend may be tougher and even more demanding than expected. Faith arrives with her partner Hope, and their son Oliver, a fourteen-year-old who speaks in rhymes. Finally sister and ex-con Iris arrives with Vicki's son, Quinn. The tension-filled and secret-keeping group awaits the arrival of the lawyer, Brenda Black, and the reading of the will, which releases all manner of mayhem - and murder.

The narrative is broken down into four parts. The pace in the first two parts moves rather slowly as the plot is set up and background information is provided, however things really take off in the last two parts. The short chapters help the drama and revelations move along. Many of the secrets the sisters are keeping end up being revealed. The hurricane plays a major role in the narrative as everyone is trapped in the hotel while the electricity keep flickering on and off and cell reception is down.

Charley is a sympathetic character and you will want her to survive her encounter with the sisters. All the sisters are, predictably, disagreeable characters. You know from the backstory the big secret they are hiding and can easily surmise some others. The other characters are a mixed bag.

While most of the secrets are not shocking because you can guess what is going to happen, the animosity and vitriol that accompanies them will keep you reading and immersed in the action. I was entertained throughout. If you enjoy locked-room mysteries, One Big Happy Family is a good choice. 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.

The Blind Devotion of Imogene

The Blind Devotion of Imogene by David Putnam
7/9/24; 246 pages
Level Best Books
The Misadventures of Imogene Taylor #1

The Blind Devotion of Imogene by David Putnam is a highly recommended character-driven 70's noir .

It's 1973 and seventy-five year old Imogene Taylor is out of prison and on parole. She works at Dentco, a store that sells dented canned goods, and enjoys her Marlboro Reds, and Schlitz beer. She also tries to avoid her parole officer, Nancy Do-Right. Due to some letters she wrote to the President while in prison, Eugene, a Secret Service agent, takes her to lunch on the government's dime if the president is in the area. The last thing she needs is some gangster called The Cigar trying to extort Dentco for protection money. After her neighbor Suz's father dies, Suz asks for Imogene's help cleaning out the garage and this adds another big problem.

Set your expectations and disbelief aside while reading this entertaining, comedic noir novel set in Southern California. The tone to the novel is rather bleak and forlorn even when comedic elements are added to the narrative. The action and plot twists can feel a bit excessive and could result in eye-rolling, but that seems to be the whole point of the plot. There are some flashbacks which serve to strengthen and round out Imogene's character as well as provide background information about her life.

The Blind Devotion of Imogene features Imogene and a cast of quirky characters. All of them are caricatures of a type of person, which serves to enhance the humor embedded in the narrative. The nicknames Imogene gives to everyone also adds to the amusement as well as a description of them.

The author's notes at the end of the novel should not be skipped as they provide some interesting information pertinent to the story. This is the first novel of a new series so be forewarned: everything is not resolved and wrapped up at the ending. Thanks to Level Best Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The Family Experiment

The Family Experiment by John Marrs
7/9/24; 384 pages
Hanover Square Press

The Family Experiment by John Marrs is a very highly recommended speculative thriller which melds the future of AI (artificial intelligence) into the realm of creating a virtual family for a reality TV show. This is a perfect pick for science fiction enthusiasts.

In a not too distant future the UK is under an economic crisis and a growing number of people can no longer afford to start families. However, with the burgeoning field of AI with a monthly subscription fee, people can create a virtual child who they can access via the metaverse and a VR headset. The company introducing this, Awakening Entertainment, has created an interactive reality TV show called "The Family Experiment" using their technological advances. 

In "The Family Experiment," which will stream 24/7, five couples and one single father will compete as they raise a virtual child from birth to the age of eighteen but in a condensed nine-month time period. There are monthly challenges and constant feedback from viewers via red or black hearts on the screen. The prize is the right to keep their virtual child or terminate it and use the prize money to start a family in the real world. Contestants include: Rufus Green and Kitty Carter; Dimitri and Zoe Taylor-Georgiou; Woody and Tina Finn; Cadman N’Yu and Gabriel Macmillan; Selena and Jaden Wilson; and Hudson Wright.

This is a brilliant, compelling, contemplative, twisty, and slightly terrifying (with the AI) thriller. I would say it is science fiction, but not with the current advances in artificial intelligence. It will hold your complete attention throughout. Readers will soon realize that someone seems to be interfering with the contestants and that there may be more behind Awakening Entertainment than great programming. One of the thought provoking questions raised, which seems simple, but could soon be timely, is: are the virtual children real?

Most of the characters are complicated and not likeable, but they are fully realized characters who have problems and secrets. It is easy to follow the plot and keep all the characters straight because they are all depicted as unique, intriguing individuals. As the narrative unfolds, many of their secrets are revealed along the way.

The final denouement is surprising and excellent in this fast paced cautionary tale. This is set in the same universe as Marrs' novel The One (2016), The Passengers (2019), and The Marriage Act (2023), however I feel like works well as a standalone novel too. Thanks to Hanover Square Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via Edelweiss. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

 

Monday, July 1, 2024

The Day He Never Came Home

The Day He Never Came Home by Andrew DeYoung
7/9/24; 368 pages
Poisoned Pen Press

The Day He Never Came Home by Andrew DeYoung is a highly recommended domestic mystery.

Regan Peters' husband John may not talk about his past, but Regan knows he loves her and their two children, after all he just bought her a lake house. John is a financial advisor who works long hours to provide for them, so it is a shocking surprise when the FBI shows up at their home and Regan learns he has been running a Ponzi scheme. Then the real dilemma begins. Does Regan tell the FBI everything or would it be more prudent to hold back some information to protect her and the children since she may have a clue or two about what is happening, especially after she discovers the money and then receives a threat.

The Day He Never Came Home is a well-written novel that does hold your attention throughout while the plot moves along at a good pace. The narrative is broken into three parts. Part one is from Regan's point-of-view, part two is from John's perspective, and part three joins the two narratives. Regan's perspective is perhaps the most compelling of the two, although John's does provide background information for his character before it covers some of the same ground as Regan's point-of-view. There are a few interesting twists along the way.

Both Regan and John are interesting characters. Neither one is completely virtuous as they are both are guilty in various degrees of morally ambiguous actions. Regan will obviously act to protect her children. They can both con and both have reasons they would do so. This makes the novel more compelling than one that follows a standard story arc. Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

All This and More

All This and More by Peng Shepherd
7/9/24; 512 pages
William Morrow

All This and More by Peng Shepherd is a very highly recommended unique version of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, only this time it is to choose, or rather revise, your life.

Marsh has just turned forty-five and feels as if she has missed her chance at fulfillment in every area of her life. She can't believe it when she is selected to be a contestant on season 3 of the show All This and More. The show uses quantum technology, a time bubble, to allow contestants the chance to revise their pasts and change their present lives. This is Marsh's chance to seize her chance to get it all right and have the life she always wanted. As she tries on being successful in different occupations Marsh begins to realize that something is not quite right with All This and More.

This is a very creative, imaginative novel and the writing is incredible, characteristics I expect from any novel Peng Shepherd writes. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I am good with the reality TV show plot mixed with science fiction. My only hesitation is the Choose Your Own Adventure aspect. My kids were fans of these kind of novels years ago, however I never grew up with them so the idea has no nostalgia for me. The plot had to stand on what I choose.

The different realities Marsh encounters were well done and the glitches she begins to notice are seamlessly incorporated into the various narrative choices. I liked the science fiction aspect to the narrative, the idea of jumps to different realities is clever, but maybe not so much the choose what to do next while reading. 

Admittedly, I did choose what I sincerely wanted to see next, so my experience was a mix of the two options. It might be interesting to read it straight through without choices to see if it changes my feelings. 4.5 rounded up. Thanks to William Morrow for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder

Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder by Kerryn Mayne
7/9/24; 352 pages
St. Martin's Press

Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder by Kerryn Mayne follows a woman whose personality has been formed by repressed childhood trauma. This character driven debut novel is very highly recommended.

Lenny Marks, 37 years-old and single, is a fifth grade teacher at Selby South Primary School who is excels at not having a life. She keeps to herself and her routines. She eats the same things every week. She plays scrabble "with" Monica while watching Friends reruns. Lenny owns thirty-six copies of The Hobbit. Lenny may have difficulties reading people, but she is excellent with words. One of her coping mechanisms is rearranging the letters of words into as many anagrams as possible. Lenny Marks is also very good at not remembering what happened the day her mother and stepfather disappeared when she was still a child - until she is forced to remember.

Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder is a well-written debut novel that kept me totally immersed in Lenny's story throughout. This character driven novel truly is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. It is written in the same vein of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The narrative starts out at an even pace and then, once readers are introduced to Lenny and her idiosyncrasies, it begins to pick up the pace and reveal what really happened in Lenny's past and how she got the scar on her leg.

Lenny is a memorable, intelligent, complicated, neurodivergent character. She survived incredible trauma as a child and found a way to keep living while repressing many of those memories. Her inner thoughts and reactions are written in a believable manner. Readers will love to see her trying to connect with people and her rescue of an abuse dog. 

Once her past is revealed, it is heartbreaking and all of Lenny's coping mechanisms make perfect sense. There are a few times you need to suspend some disbelief, but it is something you will gladly do in order to see Lenny through to the final denouement. Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder would be an excellent choice for book clubs! 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.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Whoever You Are, Honey

Whoever You Are, Honey by Olivia Gatwood
7/9/24; 320 pages
Dial Press

Whoever You Are, Honey by Olivia Gatwood is a measured character study that explores the relationships between women. This is a recommended debut novel that flirts with being a thriller and science fiction dystopian.

After some incident when she was eighteen, Mitty left Arizona for to stay with an old friend of her mother's, Bethel in her dilapidated oceanfront home in Santa Cruz. She hasn't been home since. Mitty is now in her late twenties while Bethel is in her late seventies. A new couple has just moved into the house next door, Lena and Sebastian. Sebastian is a renowned tech founder and Lena is his perfect girlfriend. Mitty observed the couple after they moved in and soon she and Lena meet and begin to spend time together, forming a friendship. 

The narrative revolves around Mitty and Lena, their friendship and the secrets they both have. Mitty is hiding a secret and is hesitant to make friends because of it. Lena is uncomfortable with her uneven memory and the control Sebastian has over her. The plot is rather slow paced, basic, and Lena's secret is very predictable early on. I kept reading because the quality of the writing is excellent. I was expecting the pace, tension and action to increase and wanted to know Mitty's secret.

Whoever You Are, Honey would have benefited from more action, progression in the plot and the inclusion of more science fiction elements to build up tension while keeping the poetic language. What we have is beautiful, lyrical language about loneliness, friendship, memories, and seeking perfection. The inclusion of AI is very basic has been done before and with much more intensity, credibility, and caution. This wasn't a good fit for me. Thanks to Dial Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley . My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Night the River Wept

The Night the River Wept by Lo Patrick
7/2/24; 400 pages
Sourcebooks Landmark

The Night the River Wept by Lo Patrick is a very highly recommended small town Southern murder mystery with a very unlikely investigator.

Arlene, 24, is married to her high school sweetheart, Tommy, and longs to be a mother. The two live in Faber, a small town in Georgia, where Tommy, is in commercial real estate, but does well enough that he is often called a real estate tycoon in town. Tommy loves Arlene and wants the best for her but he also has a drinking problem. After a miscarriage she needs to find a way to keep busy so she applies for a job at the police station and is offered a part time position bagging evidence. Since the job only takes about 20 minutes of work a day, Arlene begins to read the old case files.

One case in particular, the murder of three young brothers on Deck River, an area populated by those with little hope, captures her attention. The murder was followed by the suicide of the main suspect, Mitchell Wright. Arlene gets permission to look into the case and soon believes she could solve the case. Tommy is getting on her nerves with his drinking anyway and the cold case becomes an obsession. She sets out to discover the truth with help from Allaina, who was on the police force at that time, and Ronna, the police department's receptionist.

I really enjoyed The Night the River Wept and I realize I'm a bit of an outlier in how much I enjoyed it. It is a beautifully written novel and captures both a unique, charming Southern setting as the characters deal with personal struggles,loss, growth and redemption while uncovering the truth. The narrative unfolds through the point-of-view of Arlene, diary entries written by Mitchell's sister, and the murderer. Arlene is the main, dominant voice.

I appreciated the humorous dialog and observations throughout the novel. The bulk of the novel is full of grim  insightful and poignant moments in the narrative, but interspersed are gems that left me laughing several times while reading. Patrick captured the dialect of her characters in the dialogue and I could hear them talking as I read. And the stories... like the daughter who left the lineman she was married to, which disappointed her mother because she is a Glen Campbell fan.

Arlene is certainly a flawed character, but, bless her heart, I like her. She's young and she's blaming herself for her miscarriage. Her dream of being a mother has been shattered and seems unobtainable. Arlene is insecure and searching for an adult role model/friend. It is funny and a bit heartbreaking when she attaches herself to Ronna, a woman who has her own issues, and closely follows her behavior in an attempt to be an adult. This includes bringing leftover meatloaf for lunch. She's also dealing with a husband who's frequently drunk by noon. Looking into the cold case gives her a purpose and confidence in herself.

The novel is populated with unique, memorable characters. Arlene is earnest in her role as detective as she looks into the cold case. The investigation into the murder mystery is serious. The small town never really dug deep and tried to truly solve the case. People kept secrets.Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

The World After Alice

The World After Alice by Lauren Aliza Green
7/2/24; 320 pages
Viking

The World After Alice by Lauren Aliza Green is a recommended family drama following two families brought together to celebrate an unexpected marriage.

Morgan Helmsley and Benji Weil surprise their families with a wedding invitation to Maine. The two kept their relationship a secret up until now. Their wedding will be the first time the two families have been together since the tragic death of sixteen-year-old Alice and the fallout that followed twelve years ago. Alice was the sister of Benji and best friends with Morgan and no one has been the same since her death. Now the guests arrive in Maine but with them also arrive with their own agendas. It is a miasma of old wounds, secrets, and hurt.

This is a character driven novel and it closely follows the relationships and interactions between them. All of the characters have depth and are fully realized individuals. None of them are particularly likable, but they are depicted with a raw, emotional honesty. They are all flawed people. It becomes clear how intertwined these family members are and how terribly wrong everything could go for Morgan and Benji.

The pace is slow and the relationships are complicated, which results in furthering slowing the pace. The overall tone is rather sad and depressing. The narrative is told in alternating timelines, before and after the suicide and then the present day. This didn't work as smoothly as I would have preferred. This also served to further slow the pace. The language is

Personally, the overall premise that Morgan and Benji must invite family to their wedding rather than simply inviting who they wanted and announcing it to the rest, was one that I thought was ridiculous. Thanks to Viking for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Ladykiller

Ladykiller Katherine Wood
7/9/24; 368 pages
Random House/Bantam

 
Ladykiller Katherine Wood is a highly recommended debut mystery that has strong melodramatic soap opera sensibilities.

Gia and Abby became friends as children, along with Gia's younger brother Benny, because Abby's mother worked for Gia's very wealthy family. The family accepted Abby as one of their own, paid for her schooling including college, and opened up new experiences and opportunities for her. The two became even more bonded together after a tragic incident that happened when they were 18 on the family's beachfront estate on a Greek island. Gia's father, Hugo Torres, recently passed away, and left the Greek island estate to Gia.

Abby and Gia have become estranged recently, when Gia, undeterred by Abby's suggestion of caution, married Garrett after knowing him for just three months. Gia and Garrett are living on the island estate now, preparing it for sale. Abby is working fourteen-hour days as an attorney. When Gia invites Abby and Benny on an all-expenses-paid trip to Sweden to see the Northern lights and celebrate her 30th birthday, the two arrive, but Gia doesn't, texting excuses that leave them suspicious. The two set off to Greece to find Gia.

The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters that present the perspectives of both Abby and Gia. Abby's perspective is told through chapters set in the present and past. Gia's story is presented through a manuscript she is writing which purportedly describes events on the island estate leading up to her disappearance. Gia's story is of an entitled heiress living a lascivious life style. The real question becomes clear early on: Is Gia, as depicted in her manuscript, a trustworthy character or reliable narrator?

Ladykiller is a well-written debut novel that held my attention throughout. There are plenty of secrets and scandals unfolding throughout the plot. Expect some twists that may stretch credibility but should not deter you from reading. The ending, which doesn't offer a complete conclusion, will either offer readers an entertaining  opportunity to form their own opinions, or, alternately, slightly disappoint those who like closure. That, in itself, could start a lively book club discussion. Thanks to Bantam Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Same Bright Stars

The Same Bright Stars by Ethan Joella
7/2/24; 304 pages

Scribner

The Same Bright Stars by Ethan Joella is a very highly recommended feel-good literary domestic drama following Jack Schmidt and his family's beachfront restaurant, Schmidts, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. This one hits all the right notes and tugs on every heart string.

Jack, 52, spends all his time, every day, running the family restaurant. Ever since he took over after the death of his father, the demands of Schmidts always come first, before relationships or leisure time. He is the third generation to run the restaurant. Now he has before him a generous offer from the DelDine group to buy Schmidts. The corporation has been buying up restaurants along the coast. The stress the holidays put any restaurant under makes Thanksgiving a natural time to seriously consider the DelDine offer. They claim they will continue to employ his staff and honor his family's legacy, but can he trust them? And is it too late for Jack to make a life for himself apart from the restaurant?

The Same Bright Stars shines as a character driven drama and character study focused around Jack. Jack's life, struggles, family, compassion, and loses are all perfectly portrayed. He is a wonderful, fully realized, sympathetic character, as are the supporting cast of characters. They all come to life.  Jack also has regrets from his past and desires a relationship but feels like it's perhaps too late for him.

While following the present day drama, the narrative also includes excerpts from a guidebook describing Rehoboth Beach and chapters flashing back into events from the past. Joella does an exceptional job realistically describing restaurant work. (I respect mentioning Crocs. Seriously, Crocs for work are a huge thing and this is a wonderful, realistic addition to the story.) The people who work for Jack are like family and many have a long-time relationship with him.

The Same Bright Stars is such an incredible, eloquent story of legacy, family, loss, and love. Joella handles the well-written narrative with his deft touch showing compassion and empathy for his characters and their struggles. Once you start reading you will not be able to set this novel down and it will leave an emotional impact on you. Thanks to Scribner for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Haters

The Haters by Robyn Harding
7/2/24; 352 pages
Grand Central Publishing 

The Haters by Robyn Harding is a very highly recommended thriller following an author who is being attacked by internet trolls.

Camryn Lane has just had her debut novel, Burnt Orchid, published and the initial reviews are great. Liza, her 17-year-old daughter, boyfriend Theo, her editor, and friends are all thrilled for her. Then she receives a disturbing message from an unknown sender accusing her of exploiting her student's private lives for material in the book. Camryn is a high school guidance counselor and would never do such a thing. Following the scathing message, her book begins to receive one star ratings full of unwarranted attacks on a popular review site. Camryn is advised to not engage with the trolls, but the attacks are becoming increasingly personal and threatening. Who is behind this and why do they want to destroy her?

The Haters is a well-written thriller along with a cautionary tale of engaging with online trolls. While following the main plot, the narrative includes excerpts from Camryn's novel Burnt Orchid. The excerpts make it clear that her novel is not exploiting her students lives.

Camryn is a fully-realized but flawed character. It is true that Camryn didn't listen to the advice to ignore and don't engage. She made it very personal. On the other hand, it was very personal. That fact made it clear that the list of potential suspects may need to include someone close to her. It is said that authors can feel like their books are like their children and this is how Camryn is reacting to the attacks.

The premise was so gripping and realistic I was immersed in the plot from beginning to end. Part of my high rating is how the premise of the novel is so realistic and compelling. It would be very difficult to not engage with the unwarranted harassment. If you've ever witness one of these canceling troll events on a book review site you'll understand how hateful the comments can be and obvious it is that none of them have actually read the book. Some of them will even attack other reviewers. Thanks to Grand Central Publishing for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Breaking the Dark

Breaking the Dark: A Jessica Jones Marvel Crime Novel by Lisa Jewell
7/2/24; 384 pages
Disney Publishing Group
Marvel Crime #1

Breaking the Dark: A Jessica Jones Marvel Crime Novel by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended private detective crime thriller. Yes, it does feature Jessica Jones, a retired super hero from the Marvel Universe, but knowledge of that universe is not required to enjoy this excellent investigative mystery.

Jessica Jones, ex-super-hero, is now a private investigator in New York City. Amber Randall asks for her help in figuring out what happened to her teenage twins, Fox and Lark, when they were with their father in the village of Barton Wallop, UK, for the summer. They came home changed and don't seem like the same teens who left. The two have freakishly perfect skin and have lost their distinctive tics and habits. Everything is "perfect" when asked and there is secret talks about a girl named Belle. Amber is seriously wondering if they have been replaced.

Jessica takes the case because Amber is wealthy and she needs the money. She has teenage intern, Malcolm, assist her by getting close to the twins and looking for more information about what happened to them. Then Jessica travels to the UK, meets the twin's father, and finds the mysterious Belle, a teenager living with her guardian in an old farmhouse. Then things get weird. While working the case, Jessica is going through some personal issues too.

I found Breaking the Dark wildly entertaining, extremely well-written, suspenseful, and un-put-downable. I'm probably not the target audience since I only have a passing knowledge of the Marvel Universe and am hardly knowledgeable about the lore and background of all the characters. What I am is a huge fan of Lisa Jewell's writing and if she writes it, I will read it. I was actually a bit surprised at how much I loved this novel.

The narrative follows the current investigation with occasional chapters covering events from years ago leading up to the present that provide needed background information. The two timelines coalesce at the end. The plot does have a dark mysterious, evil, and dangerous undercurrent. The plot enters into fantasy, obviously with the ties to Marvel, but also has some real lessons about modern life embedded in the plot. Including the current control social media and influencers have over people's lives in the plot is a timely addition.

Jessica is a fully realized imperfect character, full of flaws and shortcomings who is also worried that she may be pregnant, so this concern is always there. She doesn't rely upon super powers here, which should make the novel appealing to those who enjoy thrillers. Thanks to Hyperion Avenue for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Surprise Party

The Surprise Party by Julia Crouch
6/28/24; 324 pages
Bookouture

The Surprise Party by Julia Crouch is a highly recommended spin on a locked room murder mystery taking place on a Greek island.

Eve and her husband Will are taking a two week vacation to Loutrò, the Greek island village where they went for their honeymoon. They are there to celebrate her fiftieth birthday, but Eve wants to take this opportunity to tell Will something important she has needed to tell him for years and now is the time. Much to her chagrin, the next day the ferry arrives with her family and friends aboard. Will has apparently planned a surprise party for her and now her secret must wait.

Poppy, a young A&E doctor met Eve and Will on the ferry to the island and had dinner with the two that night. She is there with a secret of her own. Now she also gets pulled into the family's celebration and the murder investigation that follows. It is clear that almost everyone loves Eve but not so much each other.

Events move a little slowly at the beginning of this spin on a locked room murder mystery. Once the murder takes place, all the suspects are on the island and must stay there. Conveniently, Poppy speaks Greek and as a doctor helps the police, both as a translator and medically. This was just a bit too convenient, but easy to accept as the conflicts between family members explode. Once the pace picks up and the action and plot twists begin to happen the pages will fly by.

Characters in the novel are more caricatures of different types of people. Some are written to be disagreeable and some are likable. Eve and Poppy are the two narrators who share their points-of-view in the novel and are both likable characters. Will is a complete jerk right from the start and, along with the other characters that are clearly written to be disagreeable, readers will clearly expect poor behavior from all of them.

This is an entertaining locked-room murder mystery that explores the relationship between a mother and her children. 3.5 rounded up. Thanks to Bookouture for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

 

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Our Little Secret

Our Little Secret by Lisa Jackson
6/25/24; 384 pages
Kensington

Our Little Secret by Lisa Jackson is a highly recommended twisty domestic thriller about secrets, obsession, and betrayal. There are some Fatal Attraction

Brooke Harmon ends her affair with Gideon Ross. Brooke and her husband Neal were having problems, but they are working on their marriage now. The two have a fourteen-year-old daughter, Marilee. Gideon claims he will never let Brooke go, something he makes quite clear as he obsessively contacts and stalks her. He even becomes violent. On top of all her stress over Gideon she keeps getting strange texts say he is not who she thinks he is, Marilee has an attitude, and then Leah, Brooke’s sister, decides to visit. Leah blames Brooke for all her unhappiness and is always asking for money.

Our Little Secret is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of twists and an all consuming sense of fear and dread hanging over every chapter. That will keep you reading as the fall-out from poor decisions rain down upon the family. The drama picks up toward the end when all the secrets and betrayals are exposed.

Conversely, you need to know that it is a bit predictable. Astute readers are going to feel the "Fatal Attraction" vibes and suspect where the plot is going. This won't stop you from reading because none of the characters are likable or trustworthy in novel so you won't care too much what happens to them as the plot unfolds. (Except for the good boy, their dog Shep.) Really, the human characters are all annoying. I never want to meet any of them anywhere. 

Jackson gets major writing points for creating a plot so compelling that I could overlook such aggravating characters and keep reading because I needed to know how it all ended. Thanks to Kensington for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

You'll Never Find Me

You'll Never Find Me by Allison Brennan
6/25/24; 400 pages
MIRA Books
Angelhart Investigations#1

You'll Never Find Me by Allison Brennan is a highly recommended start to a new Private Investigator series, Angelhart Investigations. 

Margo Angelhart is working as a PI on her own after a disagreement with her mother left her estranged from her family's PI business. The disagreement is based on her father's pleading guilty and subsequent  imprisonment over a crime she is sure he didn't commit. In the first case she helps Annie and her two children escape from an abusive situation. The situation becomes threatening because the husband, Peter, is a state trooper, dangerous, and he is determined to get Annie back.

The second case starts out as a simple investigation into a cheating husband, Logan, but turns into a much more complicated situation when Margo and her siblings with the Angelhart firm discover they are both looking at Logan and Jennifer White, a former employee. Angelhart Investigations, however, is working on a corporate espionage investigation where privileged information has been copied. The people involved in both cases seemed to be tied into something much bigger than a cheating husband, especially when a third PI firm is following one of the people involved. The whole case is much more complicated than anyone initially thought and Margo consents to work together with her family to untangle the investigative threads.

Set in Phoenix, Arizona, this is a page turner that will hold your attention. Events unfold as they occur with no flashbacks or forwards, which helps increase the tension and suspense. Savvy readers may be able to quickly figure out what events are leading to, but the discoveries and facts are interesting to follow. The cheating husband investigation was a bit annoying because the client, Brittany, is annoying. Once the plot moved beyond that, it was more complicated and more entertaining. The family drama intermixed with the investigations adds a whole new layer to the intricate plot.

As expected, the writing is very good in this new series as Brennan introduces all new characters. The members of the Angelhart family are interesting and they are all multi-dimensional characters but I's expect much more development and depth in them as the series continues. Margo is a fully realized character and a great PI. It will be satisfying and enjoyable to see more of her, along with her brother Jack, in the future. Thanks to Mira Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Moral Injuries

Moral Injuries by Christie Watson
6/25/24; 272 pages
HarperCollins

Moral Injuries by Christie Watson is a recommended medical/domestic drama following three best friends since medical school and a twenty-five-year-old secret.

Olivia, Laura, and Anjali have been best friends for twenty-five years since their first day of medical school. Now Olivia is a cardiothoracic surgeon, Laura is a doctor on a helicopter rescue team, and Anjali is a general practitioner. They have been there supporting each other ever since they met, including keeping a secret from their past. They have also been keeping secrets from each other. When their teenage children face a situation that could affect their future, they try to protect their children which causes all the carefully placed dominoes in their world to fall.

The narrative is told through the point-of-view of the three main characters. The novel started out strong but soon lost steam and began to feel a bit contrived and slow moving as you keep reading, waiting for the big secret to be revealed while other secrets are flying around the room. Readers must wait until late in the novel to learn the big secret, but it seems other secrets were just as important. Actually, it was a stretch for me to believe these three women would remain friends for so long.

The medical portions of the plot are well done, interesting, and should appeal to readers who enjoy medical dramas. The personal dramas, however, seem to slow the pace down and were repetitious. It is obvious that Watson enjoys writing about the medical action more than the emotional issues. It was also a surprise when done reading to see it was only 272 pages because it seemed much longer which isn't necessarily a good sign. Thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In by Joyce Maynard
6/25/24; 432 pages
William Morrow

How the Light Gets In by Joyce Maynard is a recommended literary domestic drama and a sequel to her 2021 novel Count the Ways. This character driven novel returns to the story of Eleanor and her family through fifteen years (2010 to 2024). Fifty-four-year-old Eleanor has moved from Brookline back to the New Hampshire family farm to care for their brain-injured son, Toby, now an adult. This continuation of the original story and documents Eleanor's relationship with her family and her struggles with the societal changes around her.

As expected the writing is excellent, the characters are fully realized, and the complex story of a family is presented. I loved Count the Ways and was looking forward to revisiting Eleanor and the music she is listening to as events unfold. Alas, I didn't enjoy How the Light Gets In as much as Count the Ways. There was too much reiterating of past events at the beginning of the novel. This is a plus if you didn't read Count the Ways or if are many years between reading the two novels and you need a reminder of what happened previously. It becomes a negative to spend so much time covering past events for a novel just published in 2021. The second negative was the insertion of every recent divisive political or societal event that has recently occurred. I have cautioned more than one author recently to keep their personal views and editorializing on contemporary social/political topics to themselves and out of books as it diminishes the novel. Thanks to William Morrow for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

You're Safe Here

You're Safe Here by Leslie Stephens
6/25/24; 320 pages 
Gallery/Scout Press

You're Safe Here by Leslie Stephens is a so-so science fiction drama following three women and a fleet of floating personal pods in the Pacific.

The company run by tech and wellness guru Emmett Neal she named WellCorp has created a successful at-home sanctuary "nests." Now, Emmett has come out with WellPods. They are personal pods which float in the Pacific Ocean. The single occupants of a WellPod have two months to relax and regroup in an isolation environment where all their needs are met. Maggie, a 25-year-old newly pregnant artist, signed up for a WellPod and is at sea. Her fiancée Noa is a 38-year-old coder for WellCorp and she has just discovered something that places doubt on the integrity of the pods. Now Noa realizes that Maggie may not be safe at sea in a WellPod.

The narrative is unfolds through the point-of-view of the three women in chapters dated by the number of days pre- and post-launch. The choice to switch back and forth in time while telling the story didn't work out well in this plot for me. Additionally, as a fan of science fiction, it felt like I've read this story before so no new ground was covered. There is interesting world building, in spite of an almost obsessive need to describe in detail the food prepared by the pod. I didn't connect with any of the individual characters and their development seemed inconsistent at times.Thanks to Gallery/Scout Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

All the Colors of the Dark

All the Colors of the Dark by Chris Whitaker
6/25/24; 608 pages
Crown Publishing

All the Colors of the Dark by Chris Whitaker is a brilliant literary epic drama spanning decades and genres. This exceptional, very highly recommended novel is certainly one of the best novels of 2024. If you loved Whitaker's We Begin at the End (2020) then please read All the Colors of the Dark.

It is 1975 in the small town of Monta Clare, Missouri, where Saint Brown and her best friend Joseph “Patch” Macauley are best friends. Saint, whose parents are both deceased, lives with her grandmother and keeps bees. Patch was born with one eye, thus the nickname and his love of all things pirate related. He lives with his neglectful single mother. When Patch sees a man attacking Misty, a popular girl from school, he steps in to stop it. Misty escapes but Patch is captured instead and held captive in a dark basement for many months. 

Saint is determined to find her best friend and never loses hope, always seeking clues about his whereabouts. Her dogged persistence and tenacity is never-ending. While captive in the total darkness of the basement, Patch meets a girl, Grace, who tells him stories from places across the country and keeps him safe. Grace gives Patch hope and a reason to survive. 

And this is just a very brief taste of what awaits you when reading All the Colors of the Dark.

What follows is a glorious, heartbreaking literary saga that covers 1975 to 2001. It is an in-depth character study that merges together, in part, as a domestic drama, a coming-of-age tale, a missing person mystery, a serial killer thriller, a story of obsession, and a love story, a prison drama, and more. The short chapters are from the point-of-view of Saint or Patch. Once I started reading All the Colors of the Dark I was totally immersed in the believable and heartrending world Whitaker paints. It is a long novel, but was impossible to put down.

The writing is eloquent, descriptive, poignant, and the final result is simply a masterpiece. Whitaker is such a gifted writer! All of his characters come to life as fully realized individuals with strengths and flaws. I felt like I intimately knew all of the characters and their story will continue to resonate with me for years. Bravo, Chris Whitaker - All the Colors of the Dark is a masterpiece of literature. Thanks to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Terminal Surf

Terminal Surf by Brendan DuBois
6/25/24; 268 pages
Severn River Publishing
Lewis Cole #12

Terminal Surf by Brendan DuBois is a very highly recommended investigative thriller and the twelfth book in the Lewis Cole series. This is an excellent addition to an outstanding series!

After Lewis Cole discovers a drowned migrant woman and her child outside his home, he suddenly finds himself in the midst of a highly emotional controversy involving a human smuggling operation on the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine. The Department of Homeland Security is on a nearby beach where other bodies have washed ashore and quickly take control of the scene away from Detective Sgt. Diane Woods. Reporter and girlfriend Paula Woods does manage to take a few pictures for a story. Suddenly Tyler Beach becomes the focal point for activists from both sides of the immigration issue and a well know reporter tries to take advantage of the high emotions.

DuBois treads into choppy waters with this highly topical plot focused on human smuggling and does an exceptional job of looking at all sides of the issue without lecturing the reader. I've been known to caution authors to keep their personal political/social views to themselves as it diminishes and dates the novel but no such note is needed here. The focus of the plot is to uncover who is doing the smuggling and is responsible for the deaths. The investigation Lewis undertakes is interesting and there were several surprising twists along the way.

At this point in the series, Lewis is a well-developed character and has a complicated background that those following the series will know. Terminal Surf can be read as a stand-alone novel but knowing all the backstory of Lewis, Diane, Felix, and Paula makes the current novel a richer reading experience. Thanks to Severn River Publishing for providing me with an advance reader's copy. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.