Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
If you haven't heard about this one, I feel like you must be living under a rock.  Or at least avoiding the "books like Gone Girl" craze.  I feel like you can't review this book without saying the words "Gone Girl", although the books are honestly quite different.  They're similar only in that both are psychological thrillers with a slow building tension followed by a surprise ending with plenty of red herrings thrown in to keep you guessing.  I should probably just C&P this paragraph and add it to every single psychological thriller I read because I do tend to gravitate towards them and you absolutely cannot avoid a comparison if you publish in the genre.

That said, the writing here stands on its own without needing to be compared to anything else.  It's full of characters who are so difficult to like, but who you just can't stop reading about.  They're all perfectly loathsome, and still perfectly believable, because they're horrible in very normal ways.  The plotting moves quickly, but the tension builds slowly in a very smart way.  Having an unreliable narrator totally works in this case.  And the ending is terrifying in a very Hitchcockian sense.

Entertainment Value
I was totally caught up in the story and in learning what was Rachel really saw and what she only imagined.  It kept me up late, which is the mark of a good thriller, and I was guessing until the last few chapters.  Completely enthralling and something that I think most people will find themselves happily caught up in.

If you're a fan of unreliable narrators, psychological suspense, slow building dread and tension, or, yes, if you're looking for something similar to Gone Girl in its domestic setting and love to hate characters, this is the book for you.  Nothing stuck out to me as particularly graphic, but there is some violence and language, if I recall correctly.  Obviously, it wasn't anything I found over the top or offensive or even memorable.

Thanks to my local library for providing me with a copy!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes

From Goodreads:
An old case makes Detective Inspector Louisa Smith some new enemies in this spellbinding second installment of New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Haynes's Briarstone crime series that combines literary suspense and page-turning thrills.

Ten years ago, 15-year-old Scarlett Rainsford vanished while on a family holiday in Greece. Was she abducted, or did she run away from her severely dysfunctional family? Lou Smith worked the case as a police constable, and failing to find Scarlett has been one of the biggest regrets of her career. No one is more shocked than Lou to learn that Scarlett has unexpectedly been found during a Special Branch raid of a brothel in Briarstone.

Lou and her Major Crime team are already stretched working two troubling cases: nineteen-year-old Ian Palmer was found badly beaten; and soon after, bar owner Carl McVey was found half-buried in the woods, his Rolex and money gone. While Lou tries to establish the links between the two cases, DS Sam Hollands works with Special Branch to question Scarlett. What happened to her? Where has she been until now? How did she end up back here? And why is her family--with the exception of her emotionally fragile younger sister, Juliette--less than enthusiastic about her return?

When another brutal assault and homicide are linked to the McVey murder, Lou's cases collide, and the clues all point in one terrifying direction. As the pressure and the danger mount, it becomes clear that the silent, secretive Scarlett holds the key to everything.
I fell in love with Elizabeth Haynes when I read Into the Darkest Corner, but somehow she fell off my radar until recently, when I rediscovered her while working on my Scanning the Backlist series.  I grabbed a copy of Under a Silent Moon to read in preparation for this one and absolutely fell in love with the series.  Behind Closed Doors is the second DCI Louisa Smith story, and I picture a bright future for the series.  Haynes was a crime analyst before she was an author and it really shows in her attention to detail and depiction of a working crime unit.  I found the story to be both believable and intriguing and she kept me guessing for the majority of the book (although I do have to admit that I figured things out by the third quarter).  As far as crime writing is concerned, I'm highly impressed - I think she meets all the criteria for superior style in the genre, particularly where realism is concerned, but also in creating flawed but sympathetic characters.

Entertainment Value
Again, exactly what I'm looking for in crime writing.  I'd definitely put her on the same tier as Karin Slaughter or Jo Nesbo.  In some ways she's a bit less gritty than they are, but she does deal with sexual themes and I'd caution readers who are uncomfortable reading about sexual violence.  If you are a fan of crime writing and police procedurals, you won't find anything here that's more graphic than what is common for the genre.  While you could certainly read this as a standalone, I think it works best as the second book in a series.  There are some characters who recur and whose backstory is added to by reading Under a Silent Moon.

Highly recommended for fans of contemporary crime fiction in the vein of Slaughter and Nesbo.  My only caution is to readers who are offended by language or sexual violence, neither of which I'd consider extreme in this book, but which do appear.  My suggestion is that you start with Under a Silent Moon but have Behind Closed Doors ready and waiting because you'll be itching to read more about Lou!

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour.  Click here for a list of other bloggers on the tour.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Comics Friday: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

From Goodreads:
In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast's memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the "crazy closet"--with predictable results--the tools that had served Roz well through her parents' seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies--an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades--the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care.
I've been holding out for this one for what feels like forever.  My library system doesn't allow for interlibrary loans within the first six months of a new publication and my branch almost never purchases comics or graphic novels.  After what felt like forever, I was finally able to place a hold on a copy at another branch and have it sent to me via ILL.  It's been nominated for/won a ton of prestigious awards, so I was anxious to have my turn with it.

I'm so glad that I kept track of this one and got my hands on it as soon as I could because it is just so well done.  I fell in love with Chast's parents and their quirks and foibles, and fell equally in love with Chast herself.  My parents aren't as old as Chasts, but I do recognize many of her dilemmas in caring for them as something that I will one day need to deal with - and also see in the care of my grandparents.

One thing that sets Chast's experience apart from my own is her fraught relationship with her parents throughout her entire life.  Her parents seemed ambivalent about her presence in their lives and, her mother in particular, was overbearing and controlling, while her father dealt with many anxieties and fears.  I was fascinated to see the way these family dynamics played out in Chast's own feelings and emotions regarding providing intimate care for parents who didn't always care well for her as a child.

I was, in particular, shocked to read that Chast worried about the cost of her parents' care and its effect on her inheritance.  I'm not sure if the close nature of my family or the fact that no one has any significant wealth to distribute plays a role, but I found myself both appalled and intrigued by Chast's forthrightness regarding her issues surrounding the inheritance money.  While it's not something I could identify with or truly sympathize with, I thought it was brave for her to include something so personal in her memoir, knowing that it might be seen as cold-hearted.  I appreciated her honesty in presenting all of her emotions, not just the caring, loving ones.

I definitely recommend this one and hope that if you read it, you'll let me know so we can discuss!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book Review: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

From Goodreads:
In the waning days of 1999, the Alter sisters—Lady, Vee, and Delph—finalize their plans to end their lives. Their reasons are not theirs alone; they are the last in a long line of Alters who have killed themselves, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the first poison gas used in World War I and the lethal agent used in Third Reich gas chambers. The chemist himself, their son Richard, and Richard’s children all followed suit.

The childless sisters also define themselves by their own bad luck. Lady, the oldest, never really resumed living after her divorce. Vee is facing cancer’s return. And Delph, the youngest, is resigned to a spinster’s life of stifled dreams. But despite their pain they love each other fiercely, and share a darkly brilliant sense of humor.

As they gather in the ancestral Upper West Side apartment to close the circle of the Alter curse, an epic story about four generations of one family—inspired in part by the troubled life of German-Jewish Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of chlorine gas—unfolds. A Reunion of Ghosts is a magnificent tale of fate and blood, sin and absolution; partly a memoir of sisters unified by a singular burden, partly an unflinching eulogy of those who have gone before, and above all a profound commentary on the events of the 20th century.
The writing in this book is just stunning.  It's my favorite kind of literary/historical/family saga mashup.  I'd certainly lean towards the side of literary, but it also has the aspects of historical fiction and family saga that I truly love.  The characters themselves are the show-stealers, particularly Lady, Vee, and Delph.  I particularly love their sister relationship and the way they care for each other in such unique and different ways.  The plotting is good and I was definitely into the story, but the characters are the main draw.  I love the way the author uses the "we" voice, so we're not jumping from sister to sister as narrator, or just getting to know one sister intimately and hearing about the others through her eyes.

Entertainment Value
I couldn't put it down.  It took me three days to read it and during those three days I carried it everywhere with me, just in case I wound up with a few extra seconds to spare.  As I mentioned above, the plot is entertaining and I love seeing the various family members and their histories, especially during the first and second World Wars, but what kept me reading was the relationship I felt like I developed with Lady, Vee, and Delph.  I really cared about each of them and couldn't wait to find out if they would really go through with their suicide plan.

I absolutely loved this one.  I think it has the best of all worlds - it's beautifully written, contains fascinating and complex characters, has historical touches and family drama, and keeps the reader entertained every step of the way.  I'd compare it to novels like Middlesex and The History of Love.  It also has touches of John Irving, which is never a bad thing to say about a book.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the book tour.  Click here for a link to all the tour stops.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart and Susan D. Mustafa

From Goodreads:
Soon after his birthmother contacted him for the first time at the age of thirty-nine, adoptee Gary L. Stewart decided to search for his biological father. His quest would lead him to a horrifying truth and force him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about himself and his world.

Written with award-winning author and journalist Susan Mustafa, The Most Dangerous Animal of All tells the story of Stewart’s decade-long hunt. While combing through government records and news reports and tracking down relatives and friends, Stewart turns up a host of clues—including forensic evidence—that conclusively identify his father as the Zodiac Killer, one of the most notorious and elusive serial murderers in history.

For decades, the Zodiac Killer has captivated America’s imagination. His ability to evade capture while taunting authorities made him infamous. The vicious specificity of his crimes terrified Californians before the Manson murders and after, and shocked a culture enamored with the ideals of the dawning Age of Aquarius. To this day, his ciphers have baffled detectives and amateur sleuths, and his identity remains one of the twentieth century’s great unsolved mysteries.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All reveals the name of the Zodiac for the very first time. Mustafa and Stewart construct a chilling psychological profile of Stewart’s father: as a boy with disturbing fixations, a frustrated intellectual with pretensions to high culture, and an inappropriate suitor and then jilted lover unable to process his rage. At last, all the questions that have surrounded the case for almost fifty years are answered in this riveting narrative. The result is a singular work of true crime at its finest—a compelling, unbelievable true story told with the pacing of a page-turning novel—as well as a sensational and powerful memoir.
Very well-done.  I suggest getting this in print or ebook format as opposed to audio because some of the best evidence presented here is shown explicitly in ciphers and codes created by the Zodiac Killer.  The visual impact played a big role in convincing me that the author is probably correct in assuming that his biological father is the Zodiac Killer.  Was I convinced enough to find him guilty in a court of law?  Probably not - there's definitely room for reasonable doubt.  But I was convinced in my own mind that he is most likely correct in his assumptions.  The authors do a great job of presenting their evidence and backing it up with facts.

Entertainment Value
If you're a fan of true crime, this is a must read.  I think it can cross over, however, to fans of mysteries and thrillers as well.  It reads like a novel and will certainly keep your interest.  It's also not presented in the sensationalized way that true crime is generally perceived as embodying.

If you loved Serial, you will love this book.  It's a great story and has all the same conflicting information and subtle clues that could point in any number of directions.  And, like Serial, it has a somewhat open ending that allows the reader to decide how well Stewart has made his case.  There are entire Reddit forums devoted to this story and, if you enjoy the book, they're perfect for some internet rabbit holing.

Thanks to my local public library for providing me with a copy of this one!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow

From Goodreads:
Single, Carefree, Mellow is that rare and wonderful thing: a debut that is superbly accomplished, endlessly entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Maya is in love with both her boyfriend and her boss. Sadie’s lover calls her as he drives to meet his wife at marriage counseling. Gwen pines for her roommate, a man who will hold her hand but then tells her that her palm is sweaty. And Sasha agrees to have a drink with her married lover’s wife and then immediately regrets it. These are the women of Single, Carefree, Mellow, and in these eleven sublime stories they are grappling with unwelcome houseguests, disastrous birthday parties, needy but loyal friends, and all manner of love, secrets, and betrayal. 

In “Cranberry Relish” Josie’s ex—a man she met on Facebook—has a new girlfriend he found on Twitter. In “Blue Heron Bridge” Nina is more worried that the Presbyterian minister living in her garage will hear her kids swearing than about his finding out that she’s sleeping with her running partner. And in “The Rhett Butlers” a teenager loses her virginity to her history teacher and then outgrows him. 

In snappy, glittering prose that is both utterly hilarious and achingly poignant, Katherine Heiny chronicles the ways in which we are unfaithful to each other, both willfully and unwittingly. Maya, who appears in the title story and again in various states of love, forms the spine of this linked collection, and shows us through her moments of pleasure, loss, deceit, and kindness just how fickle the human heart can be.
Very well done.  I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of writing in these stories, although I think the title may be a bit misleading.  The characters in the story are largely very specifically NOT single - they're almost all involved in some sort of infidelity.  The sheer amount of infidelity and the casual treatment of it overshadowed my enjoyment of the quality of the writing to some degree, but I'll address that below in Entertainment Value.  As for the writing, I did find it impressive and pleasant to read.  I particularly appreciated the recurring character of Maya and the changes she goes through over the course of the book.

Entertainment Value
As I mentioned above, I was not a fan of the portrayal of infidelity in many of the stories.  We see the acts of unfaithfulness from the point of view of the one who is doing the cheating, never from the point of view of a person devastated by unfaithfulness.  And honestly, it's just a topic that almost never sits right with me.  I just prefer not to read about it and probably would have chosen something else if I had known how much infidelity was so central to so many of the stories.  That said, I do think there was an honesty to the portraying of cheating and the ways it can become boring, dull, or prove to be disillusioning.

There's not a whole lot to like about many of the characters who populate these stories.  They cheat, they manipulate, they put their own happiness above everything and everyone else.  That said, likability is not a requirement for me.  I can actually really appreciated the nuances that can be found in unlikable characters and I'm happy to report that that is certainly the case here.  The characters do have depths and their circumstances reveal a great deal about human nature and relationships.  I'm glad I read it, despite the fact that I probably wouldn't have chosen it based on the amount of cheating that takes place.  It's short and easy to read and will appeal to readers who enjoy contemporary, realistic short stories in the same vein as Sex in the City, but with a bit more depth.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads:
In this new anthology, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath. Trigger Warning includes previously published pieces of short fiction--stories, verse, and a very special Doctor Who story that was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the beloved series in 2013--as well "Black Dog," a new tale that revisits the world of American Gods, exclusive to this collection.
Trigger Warning explores the masks we all wear and the people we are beneath them to reveal our vulnerabilities and our truest selves. Here is a rich cornucopia of horror and ghosts stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry that explore the realm of experience and emotion. In "Adventure Story"--a thematic companion to The Ocean at the End of the Lane--Gaiman ponders death and the way people take their stories with them when they die. His social media experience "A Calendar of Tales" are short takes inspired by replies to fan tweets about the months of the year--stories of pirates and the March winds, an igloo made of books, and a Mother's Day card that portends disturbances in the universe. Gaiman offers his own ingenious spin on Sherlock Holmes in his award-nominated mystery tale "The Case of Death and Honey". And "Click-Clack the Rattlebag" explains the creaks and clatter we hear when we're all alone in the darkness.
FINALLY!  It's taken several tries, but I FINALLY get the appeal of Gaiman's writing.  I was less than impressed with The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere, but I fell in love with this collection of short fiction.  I hadn't read anything of his other than novel-length books, so all of this was new to me, although some of it has been printed before.  This totally lived up to my expectations of Gaiman as a teller of creepy tales.  I even enjoyed the Dr. Who story, which I didn't expect as I'm not really a fan of fan-fiction.  Obviously, this was done by an expert and I appreciated the way he added to canon without making any changes.

Entertainment Value
Again, I feel like I finally get what all the Gaiman hype is about.  These are certainly well-written, but I think the largest appeal lies in how disturbing and engrossing each of these stories are.  Nothing here drags and even the stories intended for specific fandoms can be appreciated by all readers.  I really appreciated the creep factor present in many of the stories ("Click-Clack the Rattlebag" is my favorite) and found delightful fantasy elements in the stories that aren't as frightening.

This is a well-rounded collection with a bit of something for everyone, from fans of horror to fantasy to geekdoms.  Some stories are scary, some are funny, and some are moving, but all move quickly and keep the reader engaged.  My book club read this together, courtesy of Book Club Girls, and we all enjoyed it immensely despite having widely varying tastes in fiction.

Thanks to Book Club Girl for providing us with a copy to read! This closes out our six month adventure with the Book Club Girl program.  A huge thanks to Onalee and Harper Collins for the great opportunity and the wonderful books!