Mini Book Reviews: Spring Break Edition

Spring break is upon us. Schedules are undone, and we're finding different pockets of time to sneak in some reading. Elizabeth's provided us with some great and fun suggestions to get us through the week.

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware – Lo Blacklock finally gets the break she’s been waiting for in her stagnant career as a low-level journalist. Because of her boss’ unavailability, she’s asked to be her magazine’s representative on the maiden voyage of a five-star luxury cruise boat. Closer in size to a yacht than a cruise ship, this trip brings a whole new meaning to the idea of intimate quarters. Just as she did with the house in A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware makes the location of the mystery, in this case the boat, a character in and of itself. You’re never really sure what is happening on board. Has there been foul play at sea, is the entire story a figment of Lo’s imagination, or does the truth fall somewhere in the middle? You’ll be turning pages quickly to find out.

 Published: 2016
                                              Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                              Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard – Suffering the harshest of outcomes from a one-time drinking and driving incident, Helen finds herself desperately alone. Fortunately, or so she initially thinks, Ava and Swift Havilland come to her rescue. Believing them to be her saviors, she welcomes their generosity and credits them with the slow turnaround of her circumstances from bleak to hopeful. But as her life becomes more intimately intertwined with theirs, she starts to question their motives and their true characters. Are they trying to help her get back on her feet or are they using her to advance their own interests? When tragedy strikes, loyalties are laid out in unexpected ways.  

Published:  2016
Publisher:  William Morrow Paperbacks
Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 ½ stars

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda – Nic ran away from her small home town Cooley Ridge, NC, after the disappearance of her best friend. A decade later, she returns on the heels of the disappearance of yet another girl with whom she’s connected. Having been the only one of her friends or family to leave town, she is walking back in time to her brother, her ailing dad, and her ex-boyfriend. The telling of the story begins after Nic has been back in town for two weeks. The author then backtracks through Nic’s previous fourteen days, one by one, to tell the entire story weaving in facts about Nic’s high school years and the first girl’s disappearance. While the literary device is novel, it’s confusing. At times, the reader has to sit back and recalculate where exactly the story is which breaks up otherwise effective tension. Disjointed story-telling, good mystery.

                                            Published:  2017
                                            Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 stars

The River at Night
By Erica Ferencik

The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik – This is Deliverance 2.0, 21st century style, with no rape (thankfully). Instead of four men on a camping trip in Georgia, this is four women on a white-water rafting trip in Maine. Instead of dueling banjos between strangers, the common denominator is sign language. A rollicking tale, the story keeps you riveted even though you don’t understand why Winifred, Sandra, and Rachel decided to go on this sketchy trip with their bossy, self-centered friend, Pia, in the first place. The trip should have never gotten off the ground but once you suspend reality to accept that it did, you won’t be able to put the book down until you know what happens. Ferencik also uses some beautiful language that almost seems out of place in this type of read. Good prose + good story telling = great ride. Pun intended.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Mini Book Review: "Behind Closed Doors", by B.A. Paris

You realize early on there is something very wrong with Jack and Grace’s marriage. As the tale unfolds, the wrongness explodes.  

There are holes the size of doorways in the story but that didn’t stop me from finishing the book in under two days.

Chilling, maddening and majorly anxiety producing, Behind Closed Doors will have you turning pages as fast as you can until you reach the last page and satisfyingly slam it shut.

It’ll also be a good reminder to double down on your research before dating strangers.

Published: 2016
Publisher: St. Martins Press

Elizabeth's rating: 3 stars 

A Disappointing Follow Up in "The Heavens May Fall", by Allen Eskens - Book Review

Book reviews are of course, subjective. They are relative too. Relative to what is on the recent reading list, genres, and to other work by the same author. The Heavens May Fall is fine, with a decent plot, suspense, and an unexpected twist. So this crime drama from Allen Eskens is fine. However, after a stretch of reading that included literary heavyweights Anthony Marra, Colum McCann, and Amor Towles…. Well, it’s all relative, right?

Perhaps it’s also the comparison to Eskens’ last book, The Guise of Another, reviewed here last year. Quite good, and memorable as a rather fun crime drama - one with a likable, if not completely innocent, protagonist. But his latest release The Heavens May Fall basically does fall, short of my expectations.  The general plot is hackneyed, but strong, and Eskens’ own legal experience successfully helps develop the storyline. But I couldn’t connect with the character I felt I was supposed to connect with most. And the best I can say about the writing, is that it was concise. 

The Heavens May Fall
By Allen Eskens

Our two leading characters are Max Rupert, a homicide detective haunted by his wife’s unsolved death years prior, and Boady Sanden, a scarred defense attorney that has come out of retirement to represent his former law partner and friend who’s been accused of murder. There are several threads of old grudges, long time alliances, and previous wrongs that intersect to make the story interesting. And naturally, there is the accused, Ben Pruitt, the high powered attorney and father accused of murdering his wife. Then there are supporting characters that showed promise to be the troublemakers we love to hate - the deceased’s sister, the state’s prosecuting attorney - but neither were developed enough for me to care. There was a big wind up with no pitch.

And Max Rupert - poor Max. I wanted to root for him, to fall for him, to respect him.  Well, he achieved the latter at least, and perhaps his character is closer to reality than I gave him credit for, but I’m not reading this for reality. I want - I expect - a hero. I didn’t get one. The Heavens May Fall was a needed break from some of the intellectually substantial and emotional stories I’ve been reading of late, but I’m ready to move on to the next heady creation. 

Published: 2016
Publisher: Seventh Street Books

Vickie’s rating: 2.5 stars 

"Truly Madly Guilty" Misses the Mark, by Liane Moriarty - Book Review

This is the second summer release I anxiously awaited only to be disappointed. Just like Emily Giffin’s First Comes Love, which I reviewed last month, Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty fell short of the high bar she has previously set for herself.

I have come to consider Moriarty a sort of modern day, female John Irving. Both are masters of bringing all story lines in their novels to fruition in the ultimately shocking ironic twist. Moriarty did it with precision in both The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies but in this book, the culminating event is shoved down your throat from the opening chapter. In fact, every other chapter is entitled “The Day of the Barbecue” so you know at the outset exactly when you’ll be reading the lead up.

Truly Madly Guilty
By Liane Moriarty

The story centers around three couples, Clementine and Sam, Erika and Oliver, and Tiffany and Vid and, yes, you guessed it, a barbecue. Clementine and Erika have been best friends since childhood with a somewhat tortured relationship. The depth and texture with which Moriarty constructs this friendship is where she excels.

What also shines in this book is Moriarty’s character development. Though she never identifies Erika as suffering from a medical condition, she seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum with her lack of affect and inability to filter. Moriarty also delves into hoarding as a condition (Erika’s mom is a hoarder) and sheds real light on how it is a sickness first and foremost, not a problem with ‘things’.

As for the plot, while the denouement of the barbecue is no doubt dramatic, it is still anti-climactic. The wind up is like the tick-tick-ticking of a monster rollercoaster only to get to the top and drop a couple feet at a leisurely pace. Similarly, the revelations that come out after the event are equally a let-down because of the overwrought build up.   

Overall, Truly, Madly, Guilty sadly misses the mark. The pages turn quickly but Moriarty’s modus operandi of an intricately woven storyline culminating in an explosive ending just isn’t there. And it is missed.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Flatiron Books

Elizabeth's Rating: 2 ½ stars

Escaping the Past in “Transformations”, by James Foley Smathers – Book Review

My friend’s dad, who is very large in stature and personality, gave me Transformations with the instruction to ‘read it.’ Out of respect and a sense of obligation, I did as told with little expectation. This is the first book for James Smathers, a retired marine and Vietnam veteran, and I was pleasantly surprised. I read it in two days.

The story tracks two main characters, Helen Warner and Jackson Andrews, who have a chance encounter in the Bahamas after their respective marriages fall apart.

Transformations
By Mr James Foley Smathers

The manner in which those marriages fall apart is fairly pedestrian. The ensuing levels of revenge in which the jilted lovers engage is not. Knowing that Smathers is happily married for decades makes one wonder where he came up with his ideas but, hey, that is what fiction is all about, right?

Smathers’ dialogue is a bit stilted with run-ons and hazy transitions which sometimes requires back tracking in order to figure out which character is actually speaking. And his attempt to replicate the local Bahamian accent is overwrought and feels more like a nod to southern slaves in the 19th century, although you do get the point. There are also some punctuation errors which are typical in a self-published book. 

Those things aside, the story telling is sound and the book moves along at a fast clip. Smathers demonstrates vast knowledge on the Bahamas, marlin fishing, addiction recovery, small aircraft flight and maintenance, and bearer bonds. Whether those insights are personal or based on research, they add texture to a classic story line of love lost and new love found.

Fun summer vacation read.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Self Published, James Foley Smathers

Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars

Who Are the Good Guys in “The Director”, by David Ignatius - Book Review

Taking a page from Sara’s post asking authors of children’s books to stop underestimating their audience…Dear writers of political suspense novels: please stop slighting women. These novels have a wider audience than the dudes they’re targeted to. Spies, politics, and suspense are subjects a lot of women love as well. And with a generation of pretty sharp young women entering the work force and reading adult fiction, you may be pushing this audience away, as well as portraying women in a subservient light with men.

The Director: A Novel
By David Ignatius

How does this relate to The Director?  We’ll get to that. In the meantime, I’ll start with how much I did enjoy this cyber-espionage thriller. I tend to gravitate to rather heavy subjects and need to remind myself to pick up some intellectual candy every once in a while. This fit the bill perfectly. David Ignatius is a well-respected, experienced journalist with the Washington Post. He’s written several political thrillers; one made into the film, Body of Lies. He’s a skilled writer and digs deep into his subjects.

The Director takes on the thorny and very prevalent subject of cybersecurity and highly proficient hackers. The story begins with a new CIA Director, Graham Weber. Weber is an anomaly in the intelligence community - an outsider from the business world and outspoken about government abiding by its laws. His idealist philosophy immediately comes into conflict with safeguarding the nation his very first day on the job. Weber struggles with maintaining his own beliefs and morals, how far to bend them for the good of the country, and staying alive. But he has a mole within the CIA, and he has to catch him red-handed. Who does he trust in the den of spies, hackers, and politicians? As the story unfolds, we’re taken to secret hideouts, shell companies, embassies, safe houses, and the White House. 

All of this equates to a well-constructed plot and a very fun read. Here’s where my issue is, which is not exclusive to Ignatius (see my post on Leaving Berlin). The leading female character, Dr. Ariel Weiss, is beautiful, sexy, and wicked smart. She’s a cyber expert with the CIA and knows how to work the system. She essentially has to play double agent, spying within her own agency, while balancing the politics and secrets amongst the hackers, the CIA Director, and Director of National Intelligence. But for all her education and training as a secret agent, she’s amazingly vulnerable. And quite frankly, some of the scenes including Weiss are wholly ridiculous. Perhaps, geared to a male audience, Ignatius believes this is what they want to read. Or perhaps he’s simply playing into the male fantasy of women who are smart and sexy, yet still cannot fully succeed without a man’s helping hand. Well, maybe it’s still true.  

Despite this annoyance, I do recommend The Director. It’s incredibly interesting to read about international cyber warfare, along with our own country’s political cover. Ignatius bases his subjects on a certain amount of fact. Which leaves the reader to wonder how much of it is reality. Regardless, engage your suspension of disbelieve, and give it a shot.

Published: 2014
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

Dystopian Love Story: “The Girl With All the Gifts”, by M. R. Carey - Book Review

The Girl With All the Gifts was an audio book for me, and frankly, it was made great by the narration of Finty Williams. This science fiction novel is not completely mired down in it’s “sci-fi-ness” (a plus for me). While certainly not of the world as we know it, writer M. R. Carey’s characters seem realistic enough.

The book begins with Melanie - a delicate child living in a cell. She’s chained to a chair, eats once a week, participates in school with other children, and is extraordinarily intelligent. We find out rather quickly that Melanie and the other 20 or so students are “hungries” - not quite living and not quite dead. So yes, I unwittingly read a zombie book.

The story begins far into the future - a dystopian England where all advanced technology has been destroyed, and healthy humans live within an enclosed environment or protected military outpost. There is a constant fear of attack from any measure of creature outside the walls, whether gangs of scavengers or hungries.  Melanie is there it seems, as an experiment - kept under complete control for both social and medical research for the heartless Dr. Caldwell to find a cure. When the base where Melanie is housed is attacked and overrun, somehow Dr. Caldwell, the angry commanding sergeant, a rather witless soldier, a nurturing teacher, and Melanie manage to escape. The ensuing journey is a long game of cat and mouse - running from the hungries and trying not to kill each other.

Even with all of this, the book is more of care and nurturing between Melanie and her teacher, Ms. Justineau. Melanie has never known parents or even had physical contact of any kind. Ms. Justineau sees in Melanie a curious, sweet, and intelligent child that simply needs love. And though they must both learn to control their impulses - in Melanie’s case quite deadly - they find common ground.

The characters were well crafted enough that I forgot about the flimsy plot.  It did, however, end rather abruptly, and left me wanting for a more pleasant conclusion. I’m no zombie expert, but overall I’d say The Girl With All the Gifts did well for the genre.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Orbit

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

"In a Dark, Dark Wood", by Ruth Ware - Book Review

This is a modern day whodunit that reads much like an Agatha Christie mystery except with current technologies like cell reception and texting capability. Five women and one man gather for a ‘hen’ party, the British equivalent of an American bachelorette party, to celebrate the nuptials of Clare. Surprised by the invite since she hasn’t spoken to Clare (her ex-best friend) in years, curiosity gets the best of main character Lenora (also known as Lee, Leo or Nora), who decides to tag along to the fete with Nina (her current best friend). At final count, there is Nora, Clare, Nina, Melanie (who experiences an acute case of separation anxiety from her new born), Flo (the overly eager new best friend of Clare) and Tom (the gratuitous gay male friend).

In a Dark, Dark Wood
By Ruth Ware

The setting is the perfect thriller locale: a house deep in a ‘dark, dark wood’ belonging to Flo’s aunt who is elsewhere. The house is big and austere and almost becomes a character in the story. With huge windows facing out, the occupants can only see a short distance into the woods but seem utterly exposed to anything or anyone outside that glass. The entire time the group is in the house, as a reader, you feel on edge about exactly what IS out there.  

The story is peppered with the right amount of red herrings, plot twists, and eerie occurrences. Author, Ruth Ware adeptly works her mystery writer magic that keeps you repeatedly changing your mind about which characters are villains and which are just unlucky bystanders roped into something wicked.

No thriller would be complete without a death, and this book has one. Interestingly though, the actual death is anti-climactic compared to the journey to it and the aftermath. Ware creates tension in the story from start to finish.

While I did figure out the final plot twist just a bit before it was revealed, that discovery took nothing away from the build up of the mystery. “In a Dark, Dark Wood” will have you double-checking that your doors are locked if you’re reading it at night. It is a solid mystery with the right amount of chill.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

“Remember Me Like This”, by Bret Anthony Johnston - Book Review

Like a house of mirrors, only slowing revealing the truth, Remember Me Like This unhurriedly divulges the facts, shattering the assumptions we’ve made along the way.  Taking place in a small Texas town outside Corpus Christi, author Bret Anthony Johnston roots us into the Campbell family four years into the search for missing eldest son, Justin. 

Parents Eric and Laura, and youngest son Griff, are coping with Justin’s disappearance in very different ways, of course. This family is not particularly unique - they are middle America, unnoticed except for the those in the town of Southport around them, recognized only for their grieving faces as they plea for any information that lead to their son’s return. They post flyers, organize search parties, and retreat into themselves. The desperation includes Eric’s father, Cecil, and important part of the narrative. Cecil is steady on the surface, and remains a stabilizing guide for Eric. Cecil grieves too - both for Justin and his late wife.  He’s an important part of the family’s lives and an interesting character - strong, vulnerable, angry, and tender. 

Remember Me Like This: A Novel
By Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin’s disappearance is only part of the story. He’s found. And similar to the troubled emotions of his loss, equally unsettling is dealing with the aftermath - of responsibility of parents and brother alike, and even more disconcerting, his kidnapper. Again, each family member has a unique reasoning and way of coping. So deep does Johnston dive into each person’s psyche, we feel the ache of loss, pain, and the brief allowances of joy.

What truly makes this book special however is Johnston’s writing itself. He brings an authenticity and rawness to each character, especially Eric and Laura, that their weaknesses lay spread out before us, disconcerting in how obviously real they are; too real. More than we would ever really want to know about those in pain perhaps, but here it is. And the prose is seamless - from describing emotions to the crime itself, and about the supporting characters around them. The complex story is precisely woven together and presented to us in a way that both surprises and makes us yearn for more.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars 

Horror and Thriller in Time for Halloween - Ghosts and Murder in Two Books: "Eeny Meany", by M.J. Arlidge and "The Ice Twins", by S.K. Tremayne - Book Reviews

Both Eeny Meany and The Ice Twins are set in Great Britain, and both are mysteries. So why not review them together? Both are also hard to put down, but their storylines and tempos are vastly different.

Eeny Meany involves a tough, strong female detective chasing a twisted serial killer who seems to have taken a page out of the “Saw” movies’ playbook. The killer doesn’t actually do the killing, just pits two people against one another with an extreme ultimatum: only one gets out alive.

Author S. K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins, haunting in a much different way than Eeny Meany, is a ghost story complete with a wind rattled lighthouse cottage on a deserted island wrapped up in a thriller that leaves you guessing until the end.

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