Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Black-Eyed Susans ~ Julia Heaberlin

Nominated for the 2014/2015 TLA Lariat Adult Fiction Reading List, Julia Heaberlin’s third outing, after Playing Dead and Lie Still, is an intricate and suspenseful story of memory and sacrifice, within the confines of a serial killer tale.  Avoiding the usual graphic and gruesome descriptions commonly found in this type of book, the author instead relies on excellent character development, figurative language and nail-biting suspense as she alternates between the year 1995, when Tessie Cartwright was found barely alive in a mass grave, surrounded by Black-Eyed Susan flowers, and the present day, shortly before the man accused of the crime is to be executed.

Tessa Cartwright is an artist with a teenage daughter who has struggled, somewhat successfully, to overcome her horrific youthful trauma.  She doesn’t let anyone know that she sometimes hears the voices of the other women who did not survive The Black-Eyed Susan Killer, whispers that tell her that the actual killer might not be the one behind bars.  The author very deliberately sprinkles clues in each chapter, present and past, and the reader is inexorably drawn into the story, unwilling to stop reading until the next part of the plot is revealed.

I actually started this book on audio for my work commute, checked out the print version at my library and downloaded the digital version, as well, so that I could keep reading the story, no matter where I was!  The narrator is excellent on the audio book, handling the various characters and the Texas accents with ease.  I became emotionally attached to the characters: Tessie/Tessa, her daughter Charlie, the elderly neighbor Effie and the other characters who are working hard to prove that an innocent man is in jail for this heinous crime.  The book also provides keen insights into the experience of death-row inmates, most of whom probably deserve to be there, but not all; and this makes the reader think about our justice system in a new and different light.

I read so many books that I feel I can say, without a doubt, that this is a well-written, well-constructed and mesmerizing tale of psychological suspense, and as an added bonus, I had absolutely no clue how it would end!  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Time of Departure ~ Douglas Schofield

Schofield, Douglas. 2015. Time of Departure. New York, NY: Minotaur Books, a division of Macmillan Books.  ISBN  978-1250072757 $25.99 USD.

Time of Departure is a bit hard to classify, in terms of genre.  It is a solid mystery, with newly discovered skeletal remains being uncovered, along with a handsome older man who knows more than he should about the crime; it’s a romance, as two star-crossed lovers meet and fall in love, and eventually, it falls into the realm of science fiction, but if I say much more about that, I’ll give too much of the story away!

Claire Talbot is the youngest female Florida State Prosecutor to be promoted to Felony Division Chief, and not everyone is happy about it.  She has a lot to prove.  When a road construction crew uncovers old skeletal remains of two women, Claire reopens a 30 year old case involving a string of abductions that were never solved.

During her investigation she meets retired homicide detective, Marc Hastings, who once worked the case and later disappeared.  Marc knows a lot about the case, obviously, but also knows a lot about Claire – much more than he should.  Together, with Marc’s steadfast guidance, they follow the clues to solve the mystery of the dead women and try to catch the killer.

Time of Departure is an engrossing mystery and a poignant love story and ultimately provides a shocking, mind-bending twist – one that you might or might not see coming.  I had fun with this one!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Forgotten Room ~ Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig

White, Karen, et. al. 2016. The Forgotten Room. New York, NY: NAL/Berkley Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0451474629. $26.00 USD

It’s unusual to come across a novel written by three authors, and one would wonder how the three different writing styles would mesh.  I’m happy to say that these three prolific authors have done an excellent job of telling one story, in three parts.  Set in three different eras in New York City, the late 1800s, the 1920s and mid-1940s, this novel tells the story of one mansion, its inhabitants over the years, and secrets that were born in a forgotten room on the top floor.

With three different narrators, and times-shifts between the historical eras, the writing is nonetheless seamless.  And some of the chapters end in such a way that you have to resist flipping forward to the continuation of the story line (I admit I didn’t resist a few times)! If you enjoy historical fiction, with a bit of romance, this emotionally satisfying novel will be a treat for you.

Friday, August 5, 2016

All the Time in the World - Caroline Angell

Angell, Caroline. 2016. All the Time in the World. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company, a division of MacMillan Publishing. ISBN 978-1627794015. $15.00 USD

Caroline Angell’s debut, All the Time in the World, doesn’t seem like the work of a first time author. The narrative, dialogue, tricky time shifts, and characters are all extremely well done.  I found myself getting lost in this story of family drama, and rooting for the characters.

Charlotte is a twenty-something gifted music composer, who for reasons not at first apparent, finds herself employed as a babysitter for a wealthy couple in New York, Scott and Gretchen McClean. Her two charges, Georgie and Matt, play a large role in the story, and the author does a good job of capturing the temperament and dialogue of these two young boys. (My own sons had the same issues with the letter “L” and hard “C’s” so I was nostalgic when I read some of their conversations- though some readers might be critical of this type of dialogue).

Very shortly after the novel begins, Gretchen McLean is killed in an accident, and Charlotte finds herself stepping into a much more demanding role in the family than she expected.  The novel shifts back and forth in time, before and after the accident, to give us perspective on Charlotte’s life and the reason she hasn’t written any music in several years.  The most poignant scenes in the book are between Charlotte and the family as they try to navigate their new reality without Gretchen, who held the family together.

This is a story that delves deeply into the emotional lives of very real characters that the reader will come to care about. Yet it doesn’t fall into maudlin territory: we are shown love, wisdom, even humor in the midst of their suffering – just like we experience in real life. Ms. Angell handles her debut with a deft hand, and I am hoping we will see more from this author.

Only one criticism: the author includes a couple of fairly explicit sex scenes that don't seem to match the tone of the rest of this family drama.  It doesn't add anything to the narrative, and seems to be not thoughtfully considered in her construction of the plot. Other than that, though, it was a satisfying read.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

American Blood ~ Ben Sanders

Sanders, Ben. 2015. American Blood. New York, NY: Minotaur Books, a division of MacMillan. ISBN 978-1250058799.  $24.99 USD

I was intrigued by the premise of this thriller, about a former New York undercover cop in the witness protection program living in New Mexico and hiding from the mob. Warner Bros. has optioned the film rights, with Bradley Cooper tapped to produce and star in the lead role. When I took a look at the author’s bio, I was amazed to learn that this native New Zealander had his first book published when he was 20 years old, and still an engineering student at the University of Auckland.  American Blood is the first book set in the United States; his previous three-book series is set in New Zealand and they were all national best sellers.  I am amazed at the talent that a single person can possess!

Marshall Grade is living in relative anonymity in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after an undercover job gone wrong forces him into the witness protection program.  He has some seriously bad guys after him, including an assassin named “The Dallas Man.”  He subleases his house to a clueless tenant in order to stay even further off the grid, and is hiding from the federal marshal in charge of his case, whom he doesn’t really trust.  He doesn’t really trust anyone.

One evening he sees a news story about a missing young woman who reminds him of someone from his past that he apparently could not save, so he decides to save this unknown woman instead.  And….it’s off to the races!

Marshall uses his skills honed as an undercover cop and his survival instincts to track down information on the missing woman.  He encounters a female detective recovering from a personal tragedy, and together they proceed to outwit the kidnappers in order to rescue the girl.  Marshall is a bit of an anti-hero, as we learn he did some pretty nasty things during his undercover work, and most of the villains in this book are really, really, bad.  I had to skim over some of the more gruesome scenes.  But I commend the author for creating a compulsive page-turner (he was under 25 when he wrote this, folks)!  He can definitely hold his own against other more mature and prolific writers out there.

This one’s not for the faint of heart, but the main characters are so well-drawn, with fully-realized back stories, that you can’t help but root for them, despite some not-quite-legal actions they take to save the missing woman.  Ultimately, Marshall realizes that his actions can’t replace what he’s lost, but salvation can be found in all sorts of places.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I'm Thinking of Ending Things ~ Iain Reid

Reid, Iain. 2016. I’m Thinking of Ending Things. New York, NY: Gallery/Scout Press, a division of Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1501126925. $22.95 USD.

I read this slim volume, which packs the punch of a much bigger novel, while on vacation in July and it scared me silly! I was sitting in the common area of our cabin in the woods, the black night making visibility opaque through the windows, and had to stop and read something else, deciding this book is best read during the daylight!  It is not a horror novel, per se; it’s actually rather difficult to classify. But the suspense toward the end is so intense that I felt like closing my eyes (except that I wouldn’t have been able to read, of course!  That reminds me of Groucho Marx’s famous quote, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read”)!  A little levity in this rather dark and deep book review!

A man and a woman, who are dating, are on a drive to a farm in the country (somewhere) so that she can meet his parents.  During the drive, all kinds of interesting things are discussed.  But we know from the beginning  that the woman is “thinking of ending things.”  We also know something terrible is going to happen, because between chapters, written in italics, are conversations of unknown people saying things like, "How did this happen? Did anyone see it coming; What a tragedy; Did he bleed out?"  So we have in-your-face-foreshadowing that the narrative is leading us to something bad, bad, bad. 

After a very strange visit to the man’s parents’ house, on the way back home, with the woman still considering “ending things,” the man makes a stop at his old high school, and then disappears, leaving the woman alone, in the dark, in the snow, in a creepy abandoned building.  It was at this point that I had to stop reading, and pick up some light chic lit!  I can’t write any more without giving too much away, but be prepared to have your mind blown by the ending.  I’ve read the reviews on Amazon, and a number of people didn’t seem to understand what happened at the end and gave it negative reviews.  All I can say is that it’s worth a re-read if you aren’t quite sure what happened, and think about the title of the book from a different perspective.  Outstanding debut!