Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Blood Red Summer

Blood Red Summer by Eryk Pruitt
5/14/24; 407 pages
Thomas & Mercer
Jess Keeler #2

Blood Red Summer by Eryk Pruitt is a very highly recommended investigational Southern noir thriller following a true crime podcaster.

After her successful debut podcast, Something Bad Wrong (also the title of the first book in the series) Jess Keeler  has been asked to join a documentary crew as the producer for a true crime TV show. When a stranger approaches her in Lake Castor, Virginia, with an idea for an investigation, she's intrigued, but the real question is if the idea will interest the investors enough to actually finance the search, with an eye on ratings.

The case is about the Lake Castor sniper who struck in 1984. The sniper terrorized the back back, a historically Black part of the old mill town, and claimed five lives. The suspect arrested and charged, Ricky Lee Patience, may not have been the actual perpetrator. There was no real look into the first four murders, but the fifth person shot, journalist Hal Broadstreet, did capture the attention of the police and community. But did they get the right man? As the investigation continues, two retired sheriffs suggest that Jess should investigate the unsolved murders from that same summer in the apartment of bootlegger Jim Fosskey and two other men.

The narrative is very compelling and will hold your attention to the end. The story unfolds between the present day point-of-view of Jess and that of Hal Broadstreet in 1984. Both are looking to solve the crimes but Hal has some insight Jess doesn't. This makes the narrative in both time periods very satisfying and equally interesting. There is a third voice that adds depth and complications to both timelines.

The writing is excellent and presents the complicated plot with what feels like ease as you are reading. The action propels the plot forward in both time periods. The suspects and characters to look into are numerous. Each new revelation and detail expands the investigation into different areas, including corruption and racism, and the twists abound. Even though it is about a podcaster, which admittedly is becoming a bit tiresome, this one is worth your time.

Blood Red Summer is going to hold your rapt attention from beginning to end. This one can stand on it's own, but the first Jess Keeler novel, Something Bad Wrong, is worth your time too. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Last House

Last House by Jessica Shattuck
5/14/24; 336 pages

Last House by Jessica Shattuck is a recommended generational family saga that spans nearly eighty years.

In 1953 Nick Taylor, a WWII veteran, is married to Bet (Elizabeth) and they have two children, Katherine and Harry. Nick and Bet met each other before he shipped out in the 1940's when she was an English major who worked as a code breaker for the war effort. Now she is raising their children while Nick is a lawyer for American Oil and travels to the Middle East. They bought a vacation house they call Last House, a secluded country home deep in the Vermont mountains. It is a place you could survive WWIII. In 1968, the second part of the novel follows Katherine facing the challenges and turbulence of the times. The novel continues to follow the family to 2026.

At its heart, Last House succeeds as a literary family saga more than historical fiction, although it does cover generations in the plot. The narrative unfolds through the points-of-view of Nick, Bet, and Katherine. This perspective showcases the differences between generations. Nick and Bet are more nuanced characters than Katherine, but she is portrayed as vehemently following her beliefs. At the forefront are generational differences, but life is made up of such and things change through the years.

All of the characters follow their personal beliefs concerning political, social, environmental, and human rights through the times in which they live. Admittedly, while I found the quality of writing excellent, I struggled to keep my interest or even care about these characters. This novel may not have been a good fit for me; it felt like it was trying too hard. Thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with an advance reader's copy. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

A Fatal Inheritance

A Fatal Inheritance by Lawrence Ingrassia
5/14/24; 320 pages
Henry Holt & Company

A Fatal Inheritance: How a Family Misfortune Revealed a Deadly Medical Mystery by Lawrence Ingrassia is a very highly recommended deeply personal memoir of a family's medical tragedies merged with a medical thriller of cancer research as scientists work to discover answers.

Lawrence Ingrassia's family story is one where death from cancer is prevalent. In his family Ingrassia lost his mother, two sisters, brother, and nephew to different kinds of cancer at different points in their lives. In the 1960s his family became one of several that intrigued Dr. Frederick Pei Li and Dr. Joseph Fraumeni Jr. in their research into why some families experienced so many deaths by cancer. They began collecting records and analyzing data to understand cancer clusters in some families.

They published their results in a paper which showed that there was likely a genetic component involved and this discovery was named the Li–Fraumani Syndrome. Their paper was first published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, and wasn't widely known. Later genetic researchers were intrigued by the syndrome and with help from Li and Fraumani and the samples they collected from families they were able to discover a mutation in the p53 gene. This inherited mutation is responsible for the higher risk of cancer. Its discovery was groundbreaking in cancer research and offers hope for potential future research.

Ingassia does an excellent job sharing his family's and others deeply personal and emotional stories while also covering how the cancer research of Li and Fraumeni’s and others evolved. The merging of the personal tragedies with the ground breaking discoveries work well together and help create a tension and anticipation for some hopeful discovery for a future cure. The question of genetic research in regards to ethical considerations and personal privacy is also considered. Thanks to Henry Holt & Company for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Demon of Unrest

The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson
4/30/24; 592 pages
Crown Publishing

The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War by Erik Larson is a highly recommended in-depth look at the months between Lincoln’s November 1860 election and the surrender of Fort Sumter which lead up to the Civil War.

Larson brings to bear his penchant for presenting extensive historical research in a vivid, compelling manner in the telling the story of a deeply divided nation and the events leading up to the start of the Civil War. "At the heart of this suspense-filled narrative are Major Robert Anderson, Sumter’s commander and a former slave owner sympathetic to the South but loyal to the Union; Edmund Ruffin, a vain and bloodthirsty radical who stirs secessionist ardor at every opportunity; and Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of a prominent planter, conflicted over both marriage and slavery and seeing parallels between them. In the middle of it all is the overwhelmed Lincoln, battling with his duplicitous secretary of state, William Seward, as he tries desperately to avert a war that he fears is inevitable—one that will eventually kill 750,000 Americans."

For those who enjoy any and all historical accounts surrounding the Civil War, The Demon of Unrest will be a welcomed addition to your library. This has been hailed as one of the most anticipated books of the year. Personally, ever since I read Isaac's Storm, still a favorite, reading any new Eric Larson book is a necessity. The presentation was compelling and the research is extensive, but I'll sheepishly admit I wanted the narrative to move along just a little bit faster. However, I know several Civil War buffs who will revel in the details.

In the opening Larson does write, “I was well into my research on the saga of Fort Sumter and the advent of the American Civil War when the events of January 6, 2021, took place.” Rather than be so specific and pinning the current ideological divisions on one day, it might have behooved him to simply say that turmoil and division between Americans is present again. Thanks to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

When She Was Me

When She Was Me by Marlee Bush
5/7/24; 400 pages
Poisoned Pen Press

When She Was Me by Marlee Bush is a highly recommended atmospheric murder mystery featuring sisterhood, obsessions, and many secrets.

After a traumatic incident in their past, twin sisters Cassie and Lenora have been inseparable. Now they live permanently in Cabin Two at an isolated Tennessee campground where they keep to themselves and Cassie films a true crime podcast. Lenora is agoraphobic and stays inside as much as possible, with the exception of careful trips to the bathhouse. After the owner of the campground dies, it is sold to a new owner who is going to allow the sisters to continue their long-term lease. Then cabin three is rented to a family with a teenage girl who later goes missing. As the search is on, the carefully cultivated life of Cassie and Lenora begins to unravel.

The twins are enmeshed in their own heads, while carefully watching others around them and each other. With a creepy, anticipatory atmospheric setting, this is a very slow paced and somewhat repetitious novel for a good portion of it, but it does make the tension rise keep rising ever so slowly until the action finally starts toward the end. The isolated camp surrounded by woods plays a major part in creating the eerie atmosphere.

The narrative is told through each sister's point of view with added "then" chapters disclosing their past. The contrast between the sisters is evident from the start and readers will want to know what happened to them in the past and how it impacted them. I can't honestly say that there are any likable or relatable characters present. There are strong themes involving the bonds between sisters and dysfunctional families.

Once the tension begins to increase, readers who have made it that far will be much more invested in the outcome. There is a twist at the end which is surprising. When She Was Me is a well written, excellent debut novel by Marlee Bush. Thanks to Poison Pen Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Downloaded

The Downloaded by Robert J. Sawyer
5/7/24; 192 pages
Shadowpaw Press

The Downloaded by Robert J. Sawyer is a so-so light science fiction novel set in 2059 featuring cryogenic freezing and quantum computers.

"In 2059 two very different groups have their minds uploaded into a quantum computer in Waterloo, Ontario. One group consists of astronauts preparing for Earth’s first interstellar voyage. The other? Convicted murderers, serving their sentences in a virtual-reality prison. But when disaster strikes, the astronauts and the prisoners must download back into physical reality and find a way to work together to save Earth from destruction."

The plot and, sadly, the writing are just okay in The Downloaded, and, honestly it was disappointing. Science fiction is a genre I generally enjoy, but what I really like is hard science fiction with all the facts and details concerning the real science supporting the story line. That is absent here, perhaps because it is a very short book. What is present is another lecture wrapped around a short story. The light plot and tedious lecture series insured I would lose interest quickly.

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. There were multiple examples of this lecturing on several different topics, including numerous times those who didn't mask or vaccinate for COVID were demonized. I'm reading fiction for entertainment and escapism. If I want a lecture on social topics, I'll select the nonfiction books and topics. Thanks to Shadowpaw Press for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Counting in Danish

Counting in Danish by Celia Berggreen
5/28/24; 360 pages
Cranthorpe Millner Publishers

Counting in Danish by Celia Berggreen is a highly recommended coming-of-age story following a grieving, surviving twin on a journey.

Twins Jess and Sophie have always known that their father, Mike, isn't their biological father. Their mother, Laura, told them that their father Per Jacobsen was from Denmark and left before they were born. Jess and Sophie were planning to travel to Denmark and find him. Now Sophie, the more confident of the two, is dead and the whole family is deeply grieving. Jess, who frequently counts to ground herself and fight off panic attacks, is seeing and talking to Sophie. She needs to make the trip to Denmark in her sister's memory to overcome her fears and hopefully find closure.

The writing is very good and does an excellent job capturing the emotional impact that a death and withheld secrets can have on a family. The only character that is really explored in any depth is Jess, and she can be an enigma because of a secret she holds that is eventually revealed. Traveling to Denmark marks an accomplishment, especially as Jess undertakes it without Sophie, that will eventually bring emotional closure for her and the whole family.

The story behind the publication of Counting in Danish is as much an emotional journey and love story as the novel itself. Sadly, author Celia Berggreen lost her battle with cancer before publication. Her Danish husband Kristian Berggreen made it his mission to see the novel through publication and fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a published author. Thanks to Cranthorpe Millner Publishers for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

The Return of Ellie Black

The Return of Ellie Black by Emiko Jean
5/7/24; 320 pages
Simon & Schuster

The Return of Ellie Black by Emiko Jean is a highly recommended psychological thriller/procedural/crime novel.

Teenager Ellie Black has been found alive in the woods of Washington State after disappearing two years ago from the small town of Coldwell Beach. Detective Chelsey Calhoun is assigned the case and immediately begins to work with Ellie and her family and question everyone involved in the case previously. Ellie, who was a teen who was pushing all the boundaries before she was taken, has returned a seriously traumatized, damaged young woman. Chelsey's sister Lydia was presumed dead fifteen years earlier, so she has empathy with families of missing girls and wants others to find the closure they need.

The narrative unfolds through multiple perspectives. Mainly it is told from Chelsey's point-of-view, but Ellie's point-of-view is presented in separate sections inserted within the chapters. Ellie's therapist also has some separate sections. Chelsey's chapters examine her investigation, her relationship with her husband, Noah, and her background. Ellie's point-of-view details the events during her horrific captivity. Using multiple perspectives results in the two main characters being sympathetic characters who are portrayed in a realistic manner.

The writing is good. There are a few sections where it flags a bit, but once the action picks up and the twists begin, the pages do fly by. I will say that more than once as I was reading I paused and thought, "Wait. Haven't I read that in another novel?" Some similarities to other novels with missing girls would be obvious, but this was more some of the details, the supporting material.

The ending twist is very surprising and shocking. You will not see it coming. However, it was simply too over-the-top much for me and required a heaping amount of setting aside disbelief. On the other hand I will certainly admit that The Return of Ellie Black is a page turner that will keep most readers glued to the pages. Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Granite Harbor

Granite Harbor by Peter Nichols
4/30/24; 320 pages
Celadon Books

Granite Harbor by Peter Nichols is a recommended murder mystery/police procedural set in Granite Harbor, Maine.

Police detective Alex Brangwen was a novelist in Great Britain before he moved to Granite Harbor. Now he is a divorced, single father and the sole detective on the police force. When a local teenager is found brutally murdered in the Settlement, the town’s historic archaeological site, Alex is the one who must find the killer. His teenage daughter, Sophie, was a friend of the victim and his friends.

This is a character driven murder mystery with gruesome murder scenes, which some readers may want to take into consideration. This novel veers more toward horror so those who enjoy that genre mixed with a procedural may like it more than I did.

The narrative is told through the point-of-view of Alex and Isabel Dorr, a parent of one of the teens and a character player at the Settlement site. There are also chapters sharing information about the killer's past incorporated through out the novel, although the identity is hidden. From the opening we understand that the killer may still have the teens in his sights. Take note that there is a twist in the plot further along that was too incredulous for me to accept the sudden insertion of it.

As a character driven novel, developing the characters into believable, sympathetic, unique individuals is essential. Alex and Isabel achieved this level of development, but the other characters fell short. Alex was the most fully realized character and if another novel featured him I would likely give it a read. Thanks to Celadon Books for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Three Drowned Girls

Three Drowned Girls by Emily Shiner
4/22/24; 352 pages
Detective Freya Sinclair #1

Three Drowned Girls by Emily Shiner is a recommended crime thriller and the first book in a series featuring Detective Freya Sinclair

After five years in Texas, Detective Freya Sinclair has returned to her hometown, Fawn Lake, North Carolina. The community knows her history and some will hold her background against her while others are happy to have her back working for their police department again. On her first day back the body of a young girl is pulled from the river. With no report of a missing girl, Freya and Detective Candy Ettinger along with help from Officer Brad Williams, immediately start trying to find the child's identity but before they do another young girl is reported missing.

Although Freya's background is referred to and hinted at throughout the novel, the total story isn't told until the end. This plot device didn't work well at all in the novel. Disclosing Freya's back story right away would have made Freya a more compelling and sympathetic character. Readers will still be supporting her investigative abilities, hoping she finds evidence and pieces clues together quickly before something else happens to some other little girl, but they aren't going to understand some of the interactions she has with others.

The writing is good and the investigation takes a logical direction. On the other hand, the plot moves a little slowly and the final denouement required too much suspension of disbelief. Additionally, there was a part of the investigation that really annoyed me for numerous reasons but to say anything would be a huge spoiler. Thanks to Bookouture for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Within Arm's Reach

Within Arm's Reach by Ann Napolitano
4/30/24; 352 pages
Random House

Within Arm's Reach by Ann Napolitano is a highly recommended literary family drama featuring three generations of an Irish-American family. First published in 2004, this was Napolitano's debut novel and showcases her early skillful ability to create finely drawn characters and bring them to life.

Catharine, the matriarch of the Irish-American McLaughlin clan, is approaching 80 years-old. Catharine has the gift of visions and has conversations with deceased relatives, a gift of her heritage. She has 6 surviving children after losing three. Kelly, 56, is her oldest surviving daughter, is married to Louis and mother to Lila and Gracie. Now Gracie is pregnant and Catharine is sure this baby, this start of the next generation will help bind the family together again. Right now the whole family keeps a tight rein on their emotions. This new addition may change everything. 

The narrative unfolds through the point-of-view of six different characters : Gracie, Catharine, Louis, Lila, Kelly, and Noreen Ballen (Catharine's nurse). These are all fully realized, exquisitely written characters who came to life on the page. They are all portrayed as real individuals, with different opinions, flaws, strengths, and conflicting emotions.

The writing is excellent in this portrait of three generations of a family. Within Arm’s Reach demonstrates how interconnected the members of a family can be and how they inherit more than they realize from their ancestors. I enjoyed everything about this novel except for the fact that it was left open ended. Certainly it showcases the developing talent of a gifted writer. It was a pleasure to read this debut novel from 2004 since I loved and adored both Dear Edward and Hello Beautiful. Thanks to Random House for providing me with an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and expresses my honest opinion.

Someone Saw Something

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

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 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 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
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

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.