Review: THE GIRL FROM BERLIN

Review:  THE GIRL FROM BERLINThe Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson
four-stars
Series: Liam Taggart & Catherine Lockhart #5
Published by St. Martin's Press on October 9, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

REVIEW:

 

Ronald H. Balson’s The Girl from Berlin is the fifth installment in his Liam Taggart & Catherine Lockhart series.  I actually didn’t even realize this book was part of a series when I requested it from Netgalley; I just saw that it was a dual timeline WWII historical fiction that focused on the rise of the Nazis and knew that I had to read it.  Thankfully, even without four novels of background on main characters Catherine and Liam, I was still easily able to follow along and enjoy the compelling story of The Girl from Berlin.

Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart are a very likable duo.  Catherine is a very successful attorney in the United States, and her partner Liam, is a private investigator.  I enjoyed the way they worked together, like yin and yang, to get the job done, as well as their easy banter.  It made me want to go back and read the prior four books to watch them work together more.

Aside from having a likeable team leading the way, I also found both timelines and their stories equally compelling.  The modern day timeline features Catherine and Liam being approached by an old friend who has an elderly aunt in Tuscany who is in desperate need of legal assistance.  A powerful corporation is claiming that they actually own the property that the aunt has lived on all her life, and they have served her with an eviction notice.  The aunt has a deed to her property, but somehow the corporation also has a deed so the question is whose deed is valid?  Catherine and Liam don’t know if they can help but are willing to give it their best shot.  Prior to taking off for Tuscany, the aunt sends Catherine a bound handwritten manuscript.  She will not discuss the manuscript but indicates that all the answers anyone needs regarding the ownership of the property are in this manuscript, which leads us the second timeline.  I found the aunt to be a very sympathetic character as well.  I mean, how can you not love a scrappy old lady trying to keep a greedy corporation from kicking her off her land?

The second timeline takes place within the pages of this manuscript as Catherine reads it on her flight.  It is a journal of sorts kept by a woman named Ada Baumgarten, a Jewish girl who was born in Berlin at the end of WWI.  The manuscript details Ada’s life as a violin prodigy and her growing friendship with a boy named Kurt.  It goes on to detail how life was in Germany in the space between WWI and WWII, especially the way Hitler and the Nazis began to slowly consolidate their power in the lead up to WWII.  The manuscript reminded me a lot of Anne Frank’s diary as she chronicled how life became more and more restrictive for Jews and how persecution of them just grew and grew the more powerful Hitler got.  Ada’s story is a powerful one and an emotional one as we see how she, her family, friends, and neighbors are all impacted by the Nazis and the utter hatred that they ushered in with them as they rose to power.

In addition to finding each of the individual timelines so compelling, I was also captivated waiting to see how the author was going to weave them together into a seamless tale.  How does Ada and her journey through WWII fit in to the modern-day story of this elderly Italian aunt who is in danger of losing her home?  I’m not going to say anymore about this, but just know that he does and that he does so brilliantly.

Overall I found this story a very satisfying read, but I did find the passages that focused on specific details of Ada’s musical performances less interesting than the rest of the novel and found myself skimming through them at times.  I think if I was a musician, I probably would have appreciated those details a bit more, but as someone who is non-musically inclined, just knowing Ada was a gifted violinist and that it made some of the Nazis treat her differently was enough information for me.

 

Ronald H. Balson’s The Girl from Berlin is a powerful tale that is filled with secrets, lies, and corruption.  However, it’s also a tale of hope, determination, and resilience.  And even though Catherine and Liam are technically the main characters, the real stars are Ada and the Italian aunt and what connects them.  For that reason, you can easily read The Girl from Berlin even if this is your first time reading a book in this series.  If historical fiction and dual timelines are your thing, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of the The Girl from Berlin.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In the newest novel from internationally-bestselling author, Liam and Catherine come to the aid of an old friend and are drawn into a property dispute in Tuscany that unearths long-buried secrets.

An old friend calls Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart to his famous Italian restaurant to enlist their help. His aunt is being evicted from her home in the Tuscan hills by a powerful corporation claiming they own the deeds, even though she can produce her own set of deeds to her land. Catherine and Liam’s only clue is a bound handwritten manuscript, entirely in German, and hidden in its pages is a story long-forgotten…

Ada Baumgarten was born in Berlin in 1918, at the end of the war. The daughter of an accomplished first-chair violinist in the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, and herself a violin prodigy, Ada’s life was full of the rich culture of Berlin’s interwar society. She formed a deep attachment to her childhood friend Kurt, but they were torn apart by the growing unrest as her Jewish family came under suspicion. As the tides of history turned, it was her extraordinary talent that would carry her through an unraveling society turned to war, and make her a target even as it saved her, allowing her to move to Bologna―though Italy was not the haven her family had hoped, and further heartache awaited.

What became of Ada? How is she connected to the conflicting land deeds of a small Italian villa? As they dig through the layers of lies, corruption, and human evil, Catherine and Liam uncover an unfinished story of heart, redemption, and hope―the ending of which is yet to be written.

four-stars

About Ronald H. Balson

When he’s not writing books, Ron is a practicing attorney with the firm of Stone, Pogrund & Korey in Chicago. He has been a civil litigation attorney for forty-three years. He was an adjunct professor of business law at the University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business for twenty-five years and was a frequent lecturer in the federal bar certification course and in trial advocacy seminars.

The demands of his legal practice have taken Ron into courts all across the United States and Canada, and for deposition testimony all across Europe and Asia. A few years ago, Ron became involved in a commercial dispute concerning telephone service in Poland. Numerous trips to Warsaw and southern Poland provided the inspiration for his first novel, Once We Were Brothers. Ron’s love of history and his travels to the Middle East provided the motivation for his second novel, Saving Sophie.

During the Once We Were Brothers book tour, Ron was introduced to several survivors of the World War II concentration camps. Of all the stories of courage and determination, one woman’s story was so moving that it formed the basis for Karolina’s Twins, Ron’s third book due out in 2016.

Ron was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction in 2014 and a finalist for the Premio Bancarella Italian Literature Award in 2014. He was an honoree at the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Award dinner.

Five Reasons Why Diane Chamberlain’s THE DREAM DAUGHTER is a Must Read

Five Reasons Why Diane Chamberlain’s THE DREAM DAUGHTER is a Must ReadThe Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain
five-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

Before The Dream Daughter caught my eye, I have to confess that I had never given Diane Chamberlain’s novels a try.  I always thought the synopses of her books sounded interesting but somehow just never got around to reading one.  Well, let me tell you that I’m seriously kicking myself right now because I have clearly been missing out on some amazing books.  The Dream Daughter is one of the most exquisite novels I’ve ever read. I devoured it and know for certain that it will make my Best of 2018 list at the end of the year.  It’s just that good.

It’s also one of those books that is best read without knowing too much going in, so instead of writing a full fledged review here, I’m just going to give you five reasons why I loved this book and think you’ll love it too.

5 Reasons The Dream Daughter Should Be on Your Reading List

  1. I’m a huge fan of time travel novels when they are well written and Diane Chamberlain writes time travel to sheer perfection in The Dream Daughter. Using precise scientific calculations to locate portals that will take you to a date and location of your choice, Chamberlain creates a brilliant and logical time traveling premise that will stretch the bounds of your imagination but, at the same time, will make you seriously think about whether such a thing could actually be possible.
  1. The Dream Daughter is a unique blend of science fiction and historical fiction, as well as a heartwrenching domestic drama. It has a little bit of everything, and for someone like me who enjoys all three of these, having them so beautifully woven together in one story was reading heaven.  What I think Chamberlain does especially well with this is that none of these elements takes over the story so I think even someone who loves historical fiction, for example, but not necessarily sci-fi, would still love the book.
  1. The Dream Daughter is a poignant read that is sure to capture your heart. Chamberlain explores the lengths that a mother will go to and the sacrifices she is willing to make in order to save her unborn child.  I was just so moved by the main character’s plight and the strength she displayed at every step along the way.
  1. Speaking of characters, I was so impressed by the way both of the main characters in this book were written. The story is told from the point of view of Carly, a widowed soon-to-be mom who is in danger of losing her baby, and Hunter, a physicist who just appears in Carly’s life one day and ends up having a massive impact on her life.  It’s immediately easy to feel sympathy for Carly  because we learn that not only is her husband killed in the Vietnam War, but her unborn child also has an untreatable heart defect that is destined to be fatal soon after the baby’s birth.  Carly’s desperation is palpable and it’s impossible not to root for her as she tries to find a way to save her child.  Hunter, however, is equally sympathetic but he’s also a tad mysterious, which makes him all the more interesting. When we (and Carly) meet him, he is at a rehab facility recovering from a fall off a roof.  There is some question as to his mental health and whether or not the fall was actually a jump.  Although he is initially completely uncooperative with his physical therapists, he warms up to Carly right away and they become friends.  Their lives further intertwine when Hunter falls for and marries Carly’s sister and then later when he approaches Carly with a possible solution on how to save her unborn child…if she’s willing to take a giant leap of faith.  I thought Chamberlain did such an incredible job of developing compelling, layered stories for each of these characters and ultimately entwining them together into one beautifully complex story.
  1. As you’ve probably gathered by me gushing about Chamberlain’s character development, I’m a big fan of her writing style. Not only was the character development wonderful, but everything about the story was.  The prose was gorgeous, without being purple, and the pacing was perfect.  The need to save the unborn child also added such a sense of urgency that I truly could not put the book down until I knew how it ended.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From bestselling author Diane Chamberlain comes an irresistible new novel.

When Caroline Sears receives the news that her unborn baby girl has a heart defect, she is devastated. It is 1970 and there seems to be little that can be done. But her brother-in-law, a physicist, tells her that perhaps there is. Hunter appeared in their lives just a few years before—and his appearance was as mysterious as his past. With no family, no friends, and a background shrouded in secrets, Hunter embraced the Sears family and never looked back.

Now, Hunter is telling her that something can be done about her baby’s heart. Something that will shatter every preconceived notion that Caroline has. Something that will require a kind of strength and courage that Caroline never knew existed. Something that will mean a mind-bending leap of faith on Caroline’s part.

And all for the love of her unborn child.

A rich, genre-spanning, breathtaking novel about one mother’s quest to save her child, unite her family, and believe in the unbelievable. Diane Chamberlain pushes the boundaries of faith and science to deliver a novel that you will never forget.

five-stars

About Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain is the New York Times, USA Today and Sunday Times bestselling author of 26 novels published in more than twenty languages. Her most recent novel is The Dream Daughter. Some of her most popular books include Necessary Lies, The Silent Sister, The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, and The Keeper of the Light Trilogy. Diane likes to write complex stories about relationships between men and women, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friends. Although the thematic focus of her books often revolves around family, love, compassion and forgiveness, her stories usually feature a combination of drama, mystery, secrets and intrigue. Diane’s background in psychology has given her a keen interest in understanding the way people tick, as well as the background necessary to create her realistic characters.

Diane was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey and spent her summers at the Jersey Shore. She also lived for many years in San Diego and northern Virginia before making North Carolina her home.

Diane received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clinical social work from San Diego State University. Prior to her writing career, Diane worked in hospitals in San Diego and Washington, D.C. before opening a private psychotherapy practice in Alexandria Virginia specializing in adolescents. All the while Diane was writing on the side. Her first book, Private Relations was published in 1989 and it earned the RITA award for Best Single Title Contemporary Novel.

Diane lives with her partner, photographer John Pagliuca, and her sheltie, Cole. She has three stepdaughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren. She’s currently at work on her next novel.

Please visit Diane’s website dianechamberlain.com for more information on her newest novel, The Stolen Marriage, and a complete list of her books.

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYES

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYESThe House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker
four-stars
Published by Annick Press on September 11, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 354
Source: the Publisher
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Who can Lena trust to help her find out the truth? Life in East Germany in the early 1980s is not easy for most people, but for Lena, it’s particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital recovering from the trauma, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite. But one night, her uncle disappears without a trace. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. The worst thing, however, is that she cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone, not even her best friends. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena is unafraid and refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences. This searing novel about defiance, courage, and determination takes readers into the chilling world of a society ruled by autocratic despots, where nothing is what it seems.

Review:

Michelle Barker’s gripping new novel The House of One Thousand Eyes is set in the early 1980’s, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The novel follows Lena, an orphan whose parents were killed in a factory explosion, thus leaving her to be raised by her aunt, who is a devout member of the Communist ruling party.  The bright spot in Lena’s weeks are when she gets to visit her uncle Erich, who is a famous author and who is NOT a devout member of the Communist Party.

In this novel, Barker graphically portrays what it’s like to live under a government that rules with an iron fist.  If the Communist leaders don’t like what they think you’re up to, they have ways of making you disappear so as to quash down any signs of resistance.  Lena learns this lesson the hard way when her Uncle Erich suddenly goes missing and all traces of his existence disappear along with him.  She does everything she can to try to find him or find out what happened to him, but has to do so carefully so as not to put herself on the government’s radar.  Barker increasingly builds up suspense as Lena becomes more and more distraught. Everyone she talks to denies her Uncle’s existence, even her aunt who is Erich’s own sister.  I found the story absolutely riveting as Lena refuses to give up even though there are spies and informers everywhere who would love nothing more than to turn her in and score some points with the Stasi/German secret police.

The House of One Thousand Eyes is a novel about courage, strength, and determination.  The world that Barker paints is often brutal and terrifying and so it becomes very easy to cheer Lena on as she risks everything to resist the East German’s efforts to snuff out both her uncle and free speech.  If you’re interested in seeing what life was like in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, I would highly recommend this book.  4 STARS

 

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYESLies by T.M. Logan
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 11, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

What if you have the perfect life, the perfect wife and the perfect child—then, in one shattering moment, you discover nothing is as it seems? Now you are in the sights of a ruthless killer determined to destroy everything you treasure.

It’s the evening drive home from work on a route Joe Lynch has taken a hundred times with his young son. But today, Joe sees his wife meet another man—an encounter that will rip two families apart. Raising the question: Can we ever really trust those closest to us?

Joe will do whatever it takes to protect his family, but as the deception unravels, so does his life. A life played out without any rules. And a cunning opponent who’s always one step ahead.

Review:

T.M. Logan’s Lies is an exciting psychological thriller that will take you on the ride of your life.  It follows English teacher Joe Lynch, a loving father and devoted husband who makes what turns out to be a life altering decision – to follow his wife’s car when he happens to see her pulling into a hotel parking garage.  That one decision sets off a chain reaction of events, including a fight with a family friend named Ben who subsequently goes missing, that turns Joe’s entire life upside down and threatens his career, his family, and even his freedom.

Joe was a pretty likeable protagonist.  He’s a bit naïve at times, but I could easily see myself falling for some of the same things he did so, in that sense, I found him easy to relate to.  He’s also a great dad.  Watching him interact with his young son really made me all the more sympathetic to him.  He’s a man who definitely cares about his family above all else.

Lies is an easy read that I binge read in a couple of sittings.  It’s fast-paced and filled with plenty of twists and turns both for Joe and the reader.  The author also effectively builds up suspense with the missing family friend, by way of an active police investigation and also with mysterious messages that Joe starts receiving – messages that threaten to take everything away from him.  Lies also features a messy, and at least for me, totally unexpected, jaw dropping ending.  Kudos to T.M. Logan for keeping me guessing all the way to the end.  4 STARS

four-stars

About Michelle Barker

Michelle Barker was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Arts One at UBC, studied for a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and graduated with a BA from UBC in English literature. After a short foray into comp lit, she left the Master’s program and worked as a research/editing assistant to Sherrill MacLaren. Sailed across the Pacific from Vancouver to Hawaii, had four children, lived for a summer in Montreal, a year in France, and then the Eastern Townships of Quebec for 10 years. After spending 7 years in the Okanagan, she returned to Vancouver. She received her MFA in creative writing at UBC’s optional-residency program in 2015.

Winner of gold National Magazine award in personal journalism (2002). Finalist for TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award (2016), OLA Forest of Reading Golden Oak Award (2017), Chocolate Lily Book Award (2016). Winner of 2017 Surrey International Writers’ Conference Storyteller Award.

Besides a chapbook of poetry called Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii, a YA fantasy novel, The Beggar King (2013), and a picture book called The Year of Borrowed Men (2016), she has also published poetry, short fiction, and a variety of non-fiction. Her poetry has appeared in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology (2011).

Barker’s newest novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes, will be out in Fall, 2018, with Annick Press.

About T.M. Logan

Tim was born in Berkshire and studied at Queen Mary and Cardiff universities before becoming a national newspaper journalist. He currently writes full-time and lives in Nottinghamshire with his wife and two children. LIES is his first novel – published by Bonnier Zaffre in January 2017. His next thriller, 29 SECONDS, comes out in January 2018 and is currently available to pre-order. For exclusive writing and new releases from TM Logan, sign up to the Readers’ Club: www.bit.ly/TMLogan.

Review: NOT THAT I COULD TELL by Jessica Strawser

Review:  NOT THAT I COULD TELL by Jessica StrawserNot That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 27, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Jessica Strawser’s latest novel Not That I Could Tell is a riveting mystery that will have you looking at your neighbors and wondering how well you really know them.  The story is set in a quiet, little neighborhood in a small town in Ohio, one of those towns where everyone thinks they know everything about everyone.  A group of women who live on the same street decide they need a girls’ night so neighbor Clara takes the lead and offers to host a bonfire at her house one Saturday night.  The moms in the group test their baby monitors and realize with glee that their monitors will work from Clara’s yard, so the party is a go.  It’s a relaxing, casual affair, just good friends, wine, and a little gossip. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary is said or done, but by Monday morning, one of the women, a mother named Kristin, along with her two young children, has gone missing.

None of the women who were at the party that night can make any sense out of Kristin’s disappearance. As far as any of them can remember, she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary at the party and didn’t mention anything about traveling.  The police are investigating the disappearance but they just seem to be going in circles, turning up more questions than they are answers.  And then there’s Kristin’s soon-to-be ex-husband, who has all but moved back into their house.  He claims that he just wants to be there in case they come back, but things just don’t quite seem to add up.

Did Kristin take a trip and just forget to tell anyone?  Did something happen to make Kristin pack up her children and flee?  Or is something even more sinister afoot?  Is Kristin’s ex somehow involved?  Or are Kristin’s friends just reading way too much into things?  Did they not know their friend as well as they thought they did?

There’s so much to like about Not That I Could Tell, but I think my favorite thing about it is that it’s a story about so much more than just Kristin’s disappearance.  Yes, it’s about that and in that sense, it’s a completely engrossing mystery, but at the same time, it just has so many more layers to it than just a straight forward mystery.

It’s also a story about the women in Kristin’s neighborhood, particularly stay-at-home mom Clara and neighborhood newcomer Izzy.  Kristin’s disappearance triggers painful memories for both of them and the story also follows how they deal with the emotional fallout.  For Clara, it triggers memories of a tragic event involving a friend who was a victim of domestic violence.  This leads her to immediately suspect Kristin’s ex of foul play because she can’t seem to separate what happened to her friend from what may or may not have happened to Kristin.  For Izzy, who has moved to the neighborhood in an attempt to escape the heartbreak of an unrequited love, Kristin’s disappearance serves as a distraction but also as a reminder that you can’t always outrun your problems and sometimes you have to just face them head on.  Unlike Clara, Izzy tries to be more open minded when it comes to Kristin’s ex since she knows what it’s like to love someone who no longer loves you back. Izzy even starts to befriend Kristin’s ex because she feels sorry for him, which really gets Clara fired up and leads to many tense moments between them as they continue to wait for news about Kristin from the police.

The author keeps all three of these women front and center by having the story unfold from each of their perspectives in alternating chapters.  We got to watch bits and pieces of the investigation into Kristin’s disappearance come together, while simultaneously watching Izzy and Clara as they work through those emotional issues that Kristin’s disappearance has dredged up for them. Kristin’s chapters are actually the most powerful – they are concise and emotionally raw – slowly but surely painting a painful journey that takes us up to the moment of her disappearance. Kristin’s chapters were also the ones that most effectively built up suspense as they seem to indicate more and more along the way that her life was much more troubled than she ever let her friends know.

I also loved how the author really delved into the psyches of each of these women while, at the same time, advancing the storyline of such an intricate mystery.  Her characterizations are so rich and so realistic – I found both Clara and Izzy to be so relatable.  They could easily be any of my own neighbors and so I found myself very sympathetic to what they were going through.

It took me a few chapters to really get into the rhythm of this story, but once I got going, I was really hooked.

Not That I Could Tell is a gripping and suspenseful read that had me turning the pages well into the night because I so desperately wanted to know what had happened to Kristin.  It’s a domestic drama written in the vein of books like Big Little Lies and TV shows like Desperate Housewives, so if you’re a fan of either of those, I’d definitely recommend this book to you.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

When a group of neighborhood women gathers, wine in hand, around a fire pit where their backyards meet one Saturday night, most of them are just ecstatic to have discovered that their baby monitors reach that far. It’s a rare kid-free night, and they’re giddy with it. They drink too much, and the conversation turns personal.

By Monday morning, one of them is gone.

Everyone knows something about everyone else in the quirky small Ohio town of Yellow Springs, but no one can make sense of the disappearance. Kristin was a sociable twin mom, college administrator, and doctor’s wife who didn’t seem all that bothered by her impending divorce—and the investigation turns up more questions than answers, with her husband, Paul, at the center. For her closest neighbor, Clara, the incident triggers memories she thought she’d put behind her—and when she’s unable to extract herself from the widening circle of scrutiny, her own suspicions quickly grow. But the neighborhood’s newest addition, Izzy, is determined not to jump to any conclusions—especially since she’s dealing with a crisis of her own.

As the police investigation goes from a media circus to a cold case, the neighbors are forced to reexamine what’s going on behind their own closed doors—and to ask how well anyone really knows anyone else.

four-stars

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKS

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch
four-stars
Published by Atria Books on July 15, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 337
Source: Purchased
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

Review:

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove follows the story of, you guessed it, a man by the name of Ove.  Ove is the quintessential grumpy old man in pretty much every way.  I actually couldn’t stand him for the first few chapters of the book.  He’s set in his ways, incredibly opinionated, and can be downright mean and rude at times.  What we also learn about him early on, however, is there’s a lot more going on with Ove than just your average grumpiness.  Ove is suffering from depression and having thoughts of suicide because his beloved wife has passed away and he’s just completely lost without her.  I felt much more sympathetic to Ove after learning this news and found myself wanting to know more about him.

My favorite part of the story therefore is how the author presents us with such a complete portrait of Ove. In addition to chapters that take us through Ove’s present circumstances, the author also includes chapters that feature life-shaping events from Ove’s past.  The more I learned about Ove, both past and present, the more lovable I found him.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on how Ove met his wife.  This grumpy old man was actually downright adorable as he awkwardly pursued the girl of his dreams.

The secondary characters also added a lot of depth to the story.  The author does a wonderful job fleshing them out and making them feel like people you might actually run into in your own neighborhood. I was an especially big fan of Ove’s new neighbors.  They’re loud, kind of obnoxious, and basically introduce themselves to Ove by nearly mowing his house over with their moving trailer.  This family, especially the wife and her two daughters, are determined to make Ove an extended part of their family, whether he likes it or not, and they are always inserting themselves into his days, shaking up his entire routine.  They bring a lot of comedy and a lot of heart to the story, and they also bring their own brand of chaos to Ove’s way too orderly existence and I loved every minute of it!

If you want an utterly charming read that focuses on family, unexpected friendships, and the evolution of a grumpy old man into a not-quite-so-grumpy old man, then definitely give A Man Called Ove a try.  The humor and sarcasm is sure to make you laugh, and the overriding heartfelt message of compassion will bring a tear to your eyes.  4 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2016
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Meet thirtysomething dad, Alex

He loves his wife Jody, but has forgotten how to show it. He loves his son Sam, but doesn't understand him. Something has to change. And he needs to start with himself.

Meet eight-year-old Sam. Beautiful, surprising, autistic. To him the world is a puzzle he can't solve on his own.

When Sam starts to play Minecraft, it opens up a place where Alex and Sam begin to rediscover both themselves and each other . . . When life starts to tear one family apart, can they put themselves back together, one piece at a time?

A Boy Made of Blocks is a beautiful, funny and heartwarming story of family and love inspired by the author's own experiences with his son.

Review:

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first started reading A Boy Made of Blocks, but what I got was a beautiful, heartfelt story of Alex Rowe, a man who has somehow taken a wrong turn in life and lost his connection to both his wife and their 8-year old autistic son, Sam.  The novel follows Alex’s journey as he is determined to figure out where he went wrong and how he can turn things around so that he can get his family and his life back.

I have to admit that it did take me a while to warm up to Alex.  I couldn’t understand how he couldn’t see what he was doing wrong, that he was either treating everything to do with Sam as a chore or even worse, was ignoring it all together, saying that he was busy at work, and leaving the brunt of raising Sam on his wife.  I kind of wanted to throttle him and tell him to grow up and stop being so selfish.  The more I got to know Alex, however, the more I realized how much he truly did love his son and that he just needed to find a way to connect with him on a real level so that everything else would sort its way out.  And even though I was initially annoyed at Alex for having gotten himself into such a self-inflicted mess with his family in the first place, I grew to admire his effort and determination to right his wrong.  No matter how many missteps and wrong moves he makes, he never gives up on trying to reconnect with Sam.

I thought the author did an especially beautiful job of portraying the vulnerability of a child who has autism, the strain that trying to raise such a child can put on a marriage, and the overall determination of parents to do whatever it takes to make sure their child feels safe and secure and has every opportunity to live a happy and successful life.  Sam was also absolutely precious and I was moved to tears watching his own emotional growth as he and his Dad begin to reconnect in a meaningful way.

A Boy Made of Blocks was an emotional and moving read for me.  I think my favorite quote from the book best sums it up:  “Life is an adventure, not a walk.  That’s why it’s difficult.”  Alex and Sam’s adventure is one you won’t want to miss.  4 STARS

FTC Disclosure: I received A Boy Made of Blocks for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

four-stars

About Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove (soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, Beartown, Us Against You, as well as two novellas, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime. His books are published in more than forty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children.

About Keith Stuart

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire, Red and Esquire, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Blog Tour – Review & Giveaway for BABY TEETH, a riveting thriller due out this summer

Blog Tour – Review & Giveaway for BABY TEETH, a riveting thriller due out this summerBaby Teeth by Zoje Stage
three-half-stars
on July 17, 2018
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Sweetness can be deceptive.

Meet Hanna.

She’s the sweet-but-silent angel in the adoring eyes of her Daddy. He’s the only person who understands her, and all Hanna wants is to live happily ever after with him. But Mommy stands in her way, and she’ll try any trick she can think of to get rid of her. Ideally for good.

Meet Suzette.

She loves her daughter, really, but after years of expulsions and strained home schooling, her precarious health and sanity are weakening day by day. As Hanna’s tricks become increasingly sophisticated, and Suzette's husband remains blind to the failing family dynamics, Suzette starts to fear that there’s something seriously wrong, and that maybe home isn’t the best place for their baby girl after all.

 

 

Today is my stop on the St. Martin’s Press Blog Tour for Zoje Stage’s upcoming thriller, Baby Teeth.  Thanks so much to St. Martin’s Press and Jordan Handley for inviting me to take part in this tour, and course to Zoje Stage for allowing me to preview her book.

 

MY REVIEW:

 

Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth is a dark and twisted tale of a seven-year old girl named Hanna who has one goal in life – to get rid of her mother so that she and her father can live happily ever after together.  As a mom, I found Baby Teeth to be perhaps my worst nightmare come true – that my child would hate me and want me gone – so in that sense, it was an incredibly uncomfortable read for me.  At the same time, however, it was still such a riveting read that I couldn’t stop turning the pages no matter how uncomfortable it made me.

Hanna is a troubled young girl.  For reasons doctors haven’t established yet, she does not speak.  In addition to being mute, she also has severe behavioral issues and has thus been expelled from every school that her parents have enrolled her in.  Suzette, Hanna’s mom, makes the decision to stay home with Hanna and home school her.  It’s not a permanent solution but at least Hanna won’t fall behind academically until a better solution presents itself.

Somewhere along the way, Hanna decides that she hates her mother and only loves her daddy.  While she and her mom are alone together all day, Hanna goes out of her way to let her mom know just how much she hates her and then even starts scheming about ways to get rid of her.  Then when Daddy comes home, she turns on the sweetness and perfectly plays the role of Daddy’s little angel, keeping him in the dark about how she really feels about her mom and of course frustrating her mother to no end.

As Daddy remains oblivious to Hanna’s dark side even as Hanna steps up her attacks on her mom, Suzette truly begins to fear for her own safety.  Can she get through to her husband and make him understand that they have a serious problem on their hands with Hanna before it’s too late?

 

It’s hard to review books like this because I don’t want to give away any of the twist and turns that make it such a compelling read, but here are some elements of Baby Teeth that I really thought the author did a wonderful job with:

Two Points of View – I thought it was brilliant to present this story in alternating chapters between Suzette and Hanna.  Being able to get a glimpse inside each of their heads as this disturbing family dynamic played out was what really made the book such an engaging read for me.

Suzette’s perspective was especially easy to relate to because all she can think about is what did she do wrong as a mother to make Hanna hate her so much.  Not only does she question where she went wrong as a parent, but then she feels tremendous guilt because there are times when Hannah pushes the envelope so far, that Suzette finds herself thinking horrible things about her child and sometimes even saying horrible things to her because she has been pushed to her limit.  In many ways, Suzette starts to really question herself as a mom.  How could she possibly think such terrible things about her child, who she really does love with all her heart, no matter how troubled she is?  Again, I found Suzette’s perspective to be very relatable and could imagine myself thinking many of the same things if I was in her shoes.

Hanna’s perspective added another disturbing layer to the narrative because even a quick glance at what’s going on inside her head reveals that she is truly a troubled little girl on many levels.  She’s callous, unfeeling, manipulative, and frankly, just all around creepy.  As soon as I’d read a chapter from Hanna, I’d instantly be all the more sympathetic to Suzette because she clearly had her hands full and was on her own thanks to Daddy Oblivious falling for all of Hanna’s tricks.

Twists and Turns – Another aspect of Baby Teeth that really entertained me was that it was fast-paced and filled with twists and turns that constantly kept me guessing about what was really going on with Hanna.  At times, the story had the feel of a horror movie so it really had me considering any and all possible explanations for Hanna’s behavior – is it psychological?  Are we going to find out she was somehow abused?  Is there something supernatural afoot?  I liked that the story really had me open to so many possibilities, no matter how over the top they seemed.

 

I’m guessing that you’ve picked up on the fact that I was not a huge fan of Hanna’s dad.  I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt – that Hanna was just that good of a manipulator – but it really just frustrated me to no end that he just didn’t get how dysfunctional their whole family situation was and how troubled his daughter truly was.

The only other real issue I had with Baby Teeth was that sometimes I found it hard to believe that a 7-year old child could devise some of the intricate and truly evil plots that Hanna came up with against her mother.  I know some kids are more precocious than others, but some of her schemes and just some of her thoughts in general came across as way too sophisticated for a child of that age.  In some ways it bothered me because I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and sometimes it felt like maybe the author was just trying too hard to make the book shocking, but at the same time, it still kind of worked for me because it made my own imagination run wild, which added to the dark and twisted nature of the book and to the horror vibe that I was already feeling:  Does she have multiple personality disorder or some other mental illness?  Is she a psychopath?  Do we have a case of The Exorcist going on here?  Has she been possessed?  Those last ones probably sound a little silly, but the book really just sucks you in that much!

 

Baby Teeth is sure to please readers who enjoy thrillers and/or horror.  It’s a wild, dark, and twisted ride that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as you watch the battle between Hanna and Suzette play out.

 

WATCH THE TRAILER FOR BABY TEETH

 

 

* * * * * *

 

ENTER THE GIVEAWAY FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN AN ARC of BABY TEETH (U.S. residents only, sorry!)

Use the Rafflecopter below to enter for your chance to win an ARC of this book.  I have 3 copies to give away and the giveaway will run until June 8th.  Please be sure to follow me on twitter as I plan to DM the three winners to get mailing addresses.  I do apologize in advance that this giveaway is U.S. only since I always prefer to do international.  I have the ARCs in hand to pass along to the winners and sadly I just can’t afford to ship them internationally.  🙁

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

three-half-stars

About Zoje Stage

Before turning to novels, Zoje Stage had a deep and eclectic background in film and theatre. Highlights include being a 2012 Emerging Storytellers Fellow from the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP.org), and a 2008 Fellow in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA.org). In 2009 she won the Screenplay Live! Screenwriting Competition, which afforded her the opportunity to direct a staged reading of her winning script, THE MACHINE WHO LOVED, for the High Falls Film Festival (Rochester, NY). Zoje has written-directed-produced numerous zero-budget films, including the documentary short BEST OF LUCK (“an amusing take on the travails of aspiring writers” – The New York Times). Her films have screened at venues such as Anthology Film Archives and Two Boots Pioneer Theater (both in NYC), Film Kitchen (Pittsburgh, PA), and Emerging Filmmakers (Rochester, NY). As a playwright, Zoje is most proud of her play MONSTER, which was produced in Pittsburgh by the Upstairs Theatre (“Ms. Stage now makes her own contribution to holocaust literature with a demanding and intensely felt play… a must-see for those wanting another view of why and how the holocaust happened.” – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). After living in Rochester, NY for many years, she is back in her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.

Blog Tour Book Review: SONG OF BLOOD & STONE

Blog Tour Book Review:  SONG OF BLOOD & STONESong of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope
three-half-stars
Series: Earthsinger Chronicles
Published by St. Martin's Press on May 1, 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

 

 

 

 

Today is my stop on the St Martin’s Press Blog Tour for L. Penelope’s new novel, Song of Blood & Stone., so in this post, I’ll be sharing my honest thoughts on this first installment in Penelope’s exciting new historical fantasy series, Earthsinger Chronicles.

MY REVIEW:

Song of Blood & Stone is the captivating and thrilling first installment in L. Penelope’s new Earthsinger Chronicles fantasy series.  It follows Jasminda, a young woman who is orphaned and living alone.  She lives caught between two warring lands, Elsira and Lagrimar.  The people of Lagrimar are dark-skinned and many of them possess an unusual magic called Earthsong, while the people of Elsira are fair-skinned, non-magical, and possess a strong fear of this strange magic.  The Elsirans and Lagrimars have disliked and distrusted each other for generations and live in relative peace only because the two lands are separated by a magical wall called the Mantle.  The mantle has occasionally been breached over the years and each time there has been a breach, war has followed.

Even though she considers Elsira to be her homeland, because she is half-Elsiran and half-Lagrimar, Jasminda is treated as an outcast by everyone around her.  She therefore lives alone on the outskirts of Elsira and has little human contact on any given day, that is, until a group of menacing Elsiran soldiers show up on her doorstep seeking refuge.  With them is a prisoner they have clearly mistreated and beaten within an inch of his life.  Jasminda is drawn to this prisoner, whose name is Jack, right away and communicates with him whenever she can steal a moment to visit him.  She learns that Jack is actually a spy who had disguised himself to go behind enemy lines and prove that the rumors are true:  the Mantle is about to be destroyed and then nothing will stop the tyrant True Father and the people of Lagrimar from bring war and their magic to Elsira.

Jasminda helps Jack heal from his wounds and, working together, they manage to slip away from the Elsiran soldiers.  Realizing that their homeland truly is in danger, Jack and Jasminda vow to do whatever they can to stop this war and so they set off on a dangerous journey together to save Elsira by unlocking the mystery of what caused these two lands to become enemies in the first place…

 

Jasminda was such an easy character to fall in love with. Being half Elsiran and half Lagrimar, Jasminda is dark-skinned and possesses a weak version of the Earthsong like the Lagrimars, so while the Elsirans tolerate her on their land, they do not trust her and shun her at every opportunity. She endeared herself to me from the opening scenes of the book when some Elsiran ladies sneer at her while she is retrieving her mail, and she responds by using her Earthsong to change her skin color to match theirs, taunting the women and asking them if that made her appearance more acceptable to them.  I laughed aloud as the ladies, with horrified looks on their faces, scurried away from Jasminda as fast as they possibly could.

I’m always drawn to a character who is portrayed as an underdog anyway, but Jasminda also appealed to me because she’s smart, independent, and resourceful.  She knows how to take care of herself and she’s also a proud woman who refuses to hang her head no matter how poorly those around her treat her, not even when her grandfather tries to pay her to say that she is not related to him.  Apparently he fears that this mixed race child, visible proof of his own daughter’s transgression, might put a crimp in his political ambitions, so he wants Jasminda out of his life permanently.

Jack was also a likeable character.  He’s a proud Elsiran who serves in their military.  When Jasminda first encounters him, he is working as a spy, trying to gather evidence to prove there is a breach imminent so that his people can prepare for the war that will also be imminent. Even though he’s fiercely devoted to his own people, what I immediately liked about Jack was that he didn’t turn his nose up at Jasminda because of her skin color like the rest of his people do.  Instead, because she lives on Elsiran land, he sees it as his duty to protect her just as he would protect any other Elsiran citizen.  I admired his sense of duty and how passionate he was about doing what was right and honorable.

Even though I liked Jack, I have to admit there were a few moments when I wanted to throttle him.  As he became more and more attracted to Jasminda, he became very intense in his need to protect her.  I found myself yelling at him:  “Dude, she wears a knife strapped to her with a garter belt and she has saved your ass more than once already! She does NOT need you to save her!” LOL!

That said, I did very much enjoy their relationship.  Even though there was a bit of instant attraction, there was clearly chemistry between them and it felt like their relationship naturally progressed throughout the novel.  Even more than the romantic aspect of their relationship, what I really liked was how well they worked together as a team to try to find a way to stop the breach and the war.

Aside from these two great characters, what appealed to me the most about Song of Blood & Stone is that even though it was a fantasy, the author has packed it full of social issues that parallel important issues we are dealing with today in our own society.  This fantasy world very much mirrors our reality so it just made the story feel all the more relevant.  The two warring lands have created a refugee crisis similar to what we have witnessed in Syria.  Elsira has hundreds of Lagrimar refugees, and as we’ve witnessed with the Syrian refugees, reactions to them are very mixed.  While some are accepting of them, by and large, people are prejudiced against them and afraid of the magic and just want them to go back where they came from.  We also clearly see the racism and prejudice everywhere Jasminda goes.  She even experiences it as a guest in the royal palace.

The author also creates a magnificent backstory that explains how the war between the Elsirans and the Lagrimars got started in the first place.  The story is locked inside of a magical stone, and for reasons no one understands, only Jasminda is able to connect with the stone and reveal the story.  She does so a little at a time so that the backstory unfolds parallel to the story we’re following.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ll just say that it illustrates the roles that both the noble Sleeping Queen and the tyrannical True Father play in the conflict’s origins, as well as how the magical Earthsong factors in, and it ultimately reveals why Jasminda is able to connect with the stone when no one else can.  It’s all quite fascinating and I loved watching the two stories unfold alongside each other.

 

I don’t want to call any of these issues dislikes, but there were a few areas where I just felt like I wanted more from the story.

The first of which is the worldbuilding.  While I loved what the author created with the two warring lands and the mantle dividing them, I still felt like I only had a vague notion of what this fantasy world actually looked like.  I just couldn’t easily picture it, which was a little disappointing. I like to be able to vividly picture the fantasy land I’m reading about, so I’m really hoping for more detail in the next book.

I had the same experience with the magical system.  The idea of the Earthsong completely fascinated me, especially with its intense healing powers and the way Earthsingers can “link” and share their songs. That said, however, I felt like I never quite fully understand how exactly the Earthsong worked or what exactly one could do with it.  It seemed like everyone who could use it did something different with it and I didn’t really see a common thread.  So yeah, I’d definitely love to learn more about this Earthsong and what it entails, especially after seeing how differently True Father used it from so many others.

Finally, even though I enjoyed the romance between Jasminda and Jack, I still felt like it started to become a distraction the further along in the book I got.  I’m frantically flipping through pages trying to figure out how they’re going to stop the war, and Jack and Jasminda seem more and more preoccupied with how they’re going to be together since their relationship will be deemed unacceptable because of Jasminda’s mixed heritage.  War is coming, people. Focus! Fight first, love later! Needless to say, it was a little frustrating at times, haha!

 

Even with those few issues, I still thought this was a very strong start to what promises to be an outstanding fantasy series.  I thought the ending was absolutely brilliant and look forward to seeing where the story goes next.  I would recommend this to any reader who enjoys fantasy, romance, or even books that focus on social issues.  I would also say that this is probably best geared toward mature readers as the sexual encounters between Jasminda and Jack are quite detailed and intense.

That said, if you like fantasy and a badass heroine, definitely consider reading Song of Blood & Stone!

 

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A treacherous, thrilling, epic fantasy about an outcast drawn into a war between two powerful rulers. 

Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive–an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart.

Jack’s mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must do whatever it takes to save Elsira and it’s people from the True Father and he needs Jasminda’s Earthsong to do it. They escape their ruthless captors and together they embark on a perilous journey to save Elsira and to uncover the secrets of The Queen Who Sleeps.

Thrust into a hostile society, Jasminda and Jack must rely on one another even as secrets jeopardize their bond. As an ancient evil gains power, Jasminda races to unlock a mystery that promises salvation.

The fates of two nations hang in the balance as Jasminda and Jack must choose between love and duty to fulfill their destinies and end the war.

 

 

 

three-half-stars

About L. Penelope

Leslye Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning author of fantasy and paranormal romance.

She was born in the Bronx, just after the birth of hip hop, but left before she could acquire an accent. Equally left and right-brained, she studied Film at Howard University and minored in Computer Science. This led to a graduate degree in Multimedia and a career in website development. She’s also an award-winning independent filmmaker, co-founded a literary magazine, and sometimes dreams in HTML.

Leslye lives in Maryland with her husband and their furry dependents. Sign up for new release information and giveaways on her website: http://www.lpenelope.com.

Review: THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah

Review:  THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin HannahThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
five-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 6th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 440
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I didn’t think there was any way Kristin Hannah could top The Nightingale, which left me sobbing by the end and is one of my all-time favorite reads, but if she didn’t top it, she came awfully darn close with her latest novel.  The Great Alone is an absolutely exquisite piece of writing.  It’s filled with realistically drawn characters, a compelling storyline that will reach out and grab all of your emotions, all in an awe-inspiring landscape.  It can be a harsh and devastating story at times as it explores dark subjects such as domestic violence and the effects of PTSD, but ultimately The Great Alone paints a beautiful portrait of hope and resiliency in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

Set in the 1970s, The Great Alone follows Ernt Allbright, his wife Cora, and their 13-year-old daughter Leni as they set out to relocate from Seattle, Washington to a remote part of Alaska.  Ernt was a POW in the Vietnam War who has struggled with day-to-day life ever since he returned home.  His behavior is erratic and volatile at times and he is often plagued by nightmares (flashbacks from his captivity) and bouts of paranoia.  Ernt has also been struggling to find and keep a job so he and his family just keep moving from place to place, hoping their luck will change.  When one of Ernt’s fallen comrades leaves him some property in Alaska, Ernt is convinced this is a sign and convinces his family that a move to Alaska is exactly what they need.  Leni and Cora are hesitant, but what we learn right away is that Cora would follow her husband to the end of the world and back if he asked. It’s just the nature of their relationship.

When they arrive in remote Kaneq, Alaska, the local residents reach out immediately and let them know that no matter how prepared they think they are to survive in Alaska, they’re dead wrong and have a lot of work to do.  Thankfully, the sense of community is so strong that the regulars don’t just dole out the advice and go about their own business.  No, they dole out the advice and then jump in and help make that advice a reality.  They get Ernt and his family about as ready for an Alaska winter as they possibly can and embrace them as new members of their pioneer community.

At first, Ernt thrives in Alaska. There’s so much to do and he loves the idea of living off the land.  But then as winter approaches and he is faced with 18 hours of darkness a day, he starts to struggle again, this time turning to violence and alcohol.  As much danger as they face outside, with the threat of the frigid temperatures and deadly wild animals, Cora and Leni soon realize that they’re in danger inside their home as well.  It becomes more and more clear that they can’t rely on Ernt to help them survive in Alaska and that this “fresh start” could end up costing them their lives.

 

This is one of those books where I could go on and on about everything I loved, but I’m just going to stick with a few highlights so that I don’t write a novel about the novel. I hope it’s not too spoilery but maybe turn back now and just know I LOVED this book if you haven’t read it yet.

Sense of Community.  I was just so touched by the way the community of Kaneq makes it their mission to make sure everyone who comes to their remote area has the tools they need to survive.  The community is filled with strong, independent, resilient people and they treat each other like family, sharing their resources and looking out for one another.  And in many cases, it’s the women of the community who are the most formidable.   Large Marge, in particular, as her name suggests, is a force to be reckoned with and one of my favorite characters in the book.  She is strong, fiercely independent, will put someone in their place in a minute if they deserve it, and she’s also hilarious.  She might just be a secondary character, but take it from me, she is fabulous!

Mother-Daughter Bond.  I thought the relationship between Cora and Leni was just beautifully written.  They share such a deep bond, first from having lived together by themselves for so long while Ernt was a POW, but then they were basically on their own once Ernt succumbed to his dark nature in Alaska.  Cora and Leni are so protective of each other – each would sacrifice themselves in order to save the other from Ernt’s violent side.  Cora wants Leni to get away so that she knows Leni is safe, but Leni won’t leave because she knows her mother will never leave her father and therefore Leni feels that she must stay to try to protect her.  In so many ways it had me screaming at the book because I wanted them both to get away before he completely lost control and killed them, but at the same time, that strong mother-daughter bond moved me to tears.

Realistically Drawn, Flawed Characters.  Hannah has such a gift for creating characters that just feel so real.  All of her characters, especially Ernt, Cora, and Leni, are messy and flawed, and even the secondary characters feel three dimensional.  There’s just so much depth to all of their personalities.  I became invested not just in Ernt’s family but in the entire Kaneq community.

The Great Alone.  I want to talk about the atmospheric quality of Hannah’s writing here.  Her descriptions of Alaska are so detailed and vivid that I was left awestruck, not just by the physical beauty of the Alaskan landscape but also by how deadly that beautiful landscape can be.  I felt the bone-chilling cold, the darkness closing in as winter approached, and the lurking bears and wolves that could attack without warning.  I truly felt like I had been transported there and like I was planning my own survival and living the pioneer life.  The Great Alone is, by far, one of the most atmospheric reads I’ve ever experienced.

 

I can’t really say that I had any issues with this book, although the scenes of domestic violence were definitely hard to take, so be forewarned.  The scenes were jarring and horrific and the portrait of a toxic relationship is frighteningly realistic.  It’s a testament to how vivid and powerful Hannah’s writing is, but man, is it disturbing!

 

It’s a brutal read at times, but The Great Alone is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve read so far this year.  It both captivated and horrified me, gutted me yet filled me with hope, and it kept me reading until the wee hours of the night because I just had to know the fate of Ernt and his family.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS: 

Alaska, 1974.  Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.  For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

five-stars

About Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 novels including the international blockbuster, The Nightingale, Winter Garden, Night Road, and Firefly Lane.

Her novel, The Nightingale, has been published in 43 languages and is currently in movie production at TriStar Pictures, which also optioned her novel, The Great Alone. Her novel, Home Front has been optioned for film by 1492 Films (produced the Oscar-nominated The Help) with Chris Columbus attached to direct.

Kristin is a former-lawyer-turned writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. Her novel, Firefly Lane, became a runaway bestseller in 2009, a touchstone novel that brought women together, and The Nightingale, in 2015 was voted a best book of the year by Amazon, Buzzfeed, iTunes, Library Journal, Paste, The Wall Street Journal and The Week. Additionally, the novel won the coveted Goodreads and People’s Choice Awards. The audiobook of The Nightingale won the Audiobook of the Year Award in the fiction category.

Review: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally Hepworth

Review:  THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally HepworthThe Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
four-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 6th 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

“Do you ever really know your neighbors?”  This tagline from the cover of Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door is what initially drew me to this book and I think it very accurately sums up the overall premise of the story.  No matter how long you’ve lived next door to someone, how well do you really know them?  The Family Next Door’s answer to that question is quite simply:  “Not nearly as much as you think you know.”

At its core, The Family Next Door is a book about secrets.  Some secrets are, of course, more scandalous than others, but really – is there anyone out there who truly shares everything about themselves with everyone they meet?  I know I sure don’t.  And, let me tell you, any secrets I may be keeping to myself pale in comparison to those the ladies of Pleasant Court are each trying to keep under wraps.  Boy, do these ladies have some dirty laundry!

First of all, especially after reading that tagline, I had to chuckle as soon as I saw that their neighborhood is called Pleasant Court.  On the surface it sounds lovely, but it immediately made me think of Desperate Housewives and Wisteria Lane, which also sounded lovely and was a huge hotbed for secrets and scandals.  Pleasant Court is a very family-oriented community.  Most of the residents have been in Pleasant Court for years and are all raising young families.  Main characters Essie, Fran, and Ange all fall into this category.  Essie’s mother, Barbara, also lives there and she helps Essie out by babysitting her grandkids.  The only character who doesn’t fit the typical mold of a Pleasant Court resident is the mysterious Isabelle, who is new to town, and who is also unmarried and has no children.  It was almost comical to watch the “radars” of the Pleasant Court women perk up as soon as Isabelle moved in:  Why would she move here? She doesn’t even have a family, etc.  These ladies become thoroughly engrossed in trying to figure out the scoop on Isabelle.  It was especially funny to me once I realized these ladies were the last people who should be casting stones and making judgements about someone they don’t even know.

That all sounds pretty vague, right? Well, since this is a book about secrets, there’s not much I can say about the plot without spoiling it.  I think it makes for the best reading experience to go into The Family Next Door knowing as little as possible and letting the secrets these characters are hiding unfold naturally.  Bottom line though:  No one in Pleasant Court is as innocent as they would have you believe.  Everyone, even Grandma Barbara, is lugging around a dirty secret or two!

 

Domestic dramas like The Family Next Door seem to be emerging as the latest trend in fiction and I have to say I enjoy these so much more than I enjoyed the unreliable/unlikeable narrator trend that books like Gone Girl started a few years ago.  Even though I enjoy them, I have had one consistent complaint with so many of the recent domestic dramas I’ve read and that’s that even though the actual drama in the story is deliciously scandalous and makes for a great page turner, I usually don’t feel very invested in any of the characters.  What made The Family Next Door head and shoulders over those books for me is that Hepworth actually made me care about the families in Pleasant Court.

She presents the story from the perspective of five very complicated female characters, but she fully fleshes out each character and infuses them with so much heart that even though each of them is clearly flawed, I still liked them and wanted them to be able to get past the deep, dark secrets that threatened to bury them.  When each of the secrets were revealed, instead of just sitting there waiting to see whether or not the secrets destroyed lives, I was sitting there like “OMG!  Damn girl, you need to fix this before it rips your family apart!”

In addition to giving me characters that I felt fully invested in, Hepworth also gave me everything else I love in a good domestic drama.  The secrets were scandalous and juicy, the pacing was quick and even – no lulls at all, and Hepworth wove enough twists and turns in the storylines of each of these characters that I stayed equally interested in all five accounts all the way through the book.  Even with so many characters to keep track of, there was no point along the way where I felt bored or distracted.  I really wanted to know everything about all five of these characters and their secrets, and that need to know really kept me turning the pages.  There were many characters and secrets to juggle, but Hepworth juggled them perfectly and crafted them into an incredibly well written and satisfying read.  I easily breezed through the book in less than two days.

 

None at all!

 

If you’re into stories that have a Desperate Housewives, Big Little Lies kind of vibe, I think this book would be a good fit for you.  This was my first time reading a novel by Sally Hepworth but it definitely will not be my last!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A gripping domestic page-turner full of shocking reveals, perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty, Amanda Prowse and Kerry Fisher.

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbors, and children play in the street.

Isabelle Heatherington doesn’t fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.

But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange’s compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won’t let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park – and returned home without her.

As their obsession with their new neighbor grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread – and they’ll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

four-half-stars

About Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016) and The Mother’s Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally’s books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally’s novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

Review: THE HUSH by John Hart

Review:  THE HUSH by John HartThe Hush by John Hart
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 27th 2018
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

I’ve been a fan of John Hart’s novels for years, ever since I read his gripping thriller The Last Child so I was beyond excited to get approved for an ARC of his latest novel, The Hush.  My excitement grew even more once I started reading and realized that The Hush actually revisits the characters and landscape that I fell in love with in The Last Child.

The Hush takes place ten years after the horrifying events that rocked the lives of both thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon and the rest of the folks who lived in Johnny’s hometown.  Over the years, even though he has shied away from the spotlight, people have written books and tried to exploit Johnny’s story, so whether he wants the attention or not, he has become somewhat of a local celebrity and is both feared and revered by those around him.  When the novel opens, Johnny is now 23 years old and, desperate to retain some element of privacy in his life, is living as a recluse in the middle of 6,000 once-sacred, wooded acres known as The Hush.

Johnny’s only real connection to his former way of life is his childhood friend, Jack Cross, who has just finished law school and landed his first job as an attorney. I don’t want to spoil anything from The Last Child so I’ll just say that what these two boys went through in that novel has made their bond of friendship stronger than ever.  Jack would literally do anything and give up everything for Johnny, and I think Johnny feels the same way about Jack.  Even though I’d classify this book as a mystery/thriller, it is a moving story about friendship as well.

There is something strange and ominous about the place Johnny now calls home, however, and Jack senses its hidden dangers.  He tries to talk to Johnny about it but Johnny doesn’t want to hear anyone speak ill of his beloved Hush.  It becomes more and more clear that what happens in The Hush is not normal.  Most people cannot navigate the wooded, swampy land.  Landmarks seems to disappear or flat out move about, strange mists appear and lead to people getting disoriented.  In fact, many who attempt to travel into The Hush don’t come out alive.  Because he lives there, Johnny of course is immediately considered a suspect every time something happens.  Jack knows his friend is innocent and makes it his mission to prove Johnny’s innocence, but big questions remain:  What the heck is really going on in The Hush? Who else is interested in it and why are they willing to pay so much money for it?

One element of the story I liked right away is that, without completely rehashing the plot of The Last Child, Hart provides his readers with just enough background information to remind us why Johnny would choose such a secluded way of life.  In that sense, The Hush works quite well as a standalone novel.  You don’t need to have read The Last Child to follow along with this story.  (I definitely recommend reading it though, just because it’s a fabulous read.)

I loved The Last Child so much, so it was also just a thrill for me to revisit this story, and especially the characters, Johnny Merrimon and Jack Cross, who were both just such compelling characters.  It was wonderful to meet these boys again and see what kind of young men they have grown up to become and that Johnny has attained an almost mythic quality in the years since we left him.  The mysterious events that are taking place in The Hush also have Johnny pitted against local law enforcement, who seem eager to pin something on him, so legendary as he is, Johnny is also cast in the role of underdog in this story, and I’m always one to root for the underdog.

Hart drew me into this story, not just by revisiting some of my favorite characters, but also with the mystery of The Hush.  Johnny loves this place so much that even though he is on the verge of losing it if he can’t come up with the money to pay his taxes, he still won’t part with a single acre of it, not even when someone offers to pay him 10 times what it is worth.  The connection between Johnny and The Hush is almost surreal – Johnny is literally one with the land, and the land is one with him.  This intense connection captivated me immediately and had me zooming through the pages because I wanted to know how and why Johnny could have such a connection to the land, especially since it seemed to literally chew up and spit out anyone else who tried to venture onto it.

I’m also a huge fan of Hart’s writing style.  It’s a given that it’s filled with exciting twists and turns by virtue of the fact that it’s a mystery, but what I love about Hart’s writing is his gorgeous prose.  His descriptions, in particular of the landscape, are so lush and vivid that it’s easy to feel that you are right there with the characters.  What I love most is that he achieves this without making it feel forced or flowery; the descriptions are fluid and effortless.  I know he’s a writer so duh, but John Hart just really has a way with words.  His descriptions of The Hush were especially well done and just so atmospheric, especially when someone besides Johnny ventured in.  It was so beautiful and yet so creepy and ominous; I literally had goosebumps on my arms and felt like I was looking over my own shoulder for signs of danger.

Lastly, because I really don’t want to give anything away, I just want to say that I also love that Hart is willing to challenge himself by trying something different.  Whereas most of Hart’s novels are straight mystery/thrillers, The Hush actually ventures over into magical realism territory and is infused with a bit of the supernatural.  This was new and unexpected since that’s not what I’m used to with a John Hart novel, but I thought he did a fantastic job with it overall.  It kind of felt like a mashup of a typical John Hart novel and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and since Beloved is a favorite of mine, it was a great fit for me.

There was only one time when I had any kind of an issue with The Hush and that was towards the end.  I can’t really go into any detail without spoiling the plot, so I’m just going to say that it revolved around the supernatural aspect of the story.  It’s hard to even explain what my issue really was except that it’s along the lines of me being willing to suspend disbelief and see where the author wants to take the whole supernatural thing, but then reaching a point where I’m like “Nope, too far.  Reel it back in.”  If you read The Hush, you’ll probably know the exact scene that I’m referring to as soon as you get to it.  Aside from that one moment, I thought it was a fantastic read.

With his memorable characters and gorgeous prose, John Hart continues his streak of well-crafted stories with The Hush.  If you’re looking for a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end and can open your mind to supernatural possibilities, The Hush should be right up your alley.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

The only writer in history to win consecutive Edgar Awards for Best Novel, New York Times bestselling author John Hart returns to the world of his most beloved novel, The Last Child.

Building on the world first seen in The Last Child (“A magnificent creation” —The Washington Post), John Hart delivers a stunning vision of a secret world, rarely seen.

It’s been ten years since the events that changed Johnny Merrimon’s life and rocked his hometown to the core. Since then, Johnny has fought to maintain his privacy, but books have been written of his exploits; the fascination remains. Living alone on six thousand acres of once-sacred land, Johnny’s only connection to normal life is his old friend, Jack. They’re not boys anymore, but the bonds remain. What they shared. What they lost.

But Jack sees danger in the wild places Johnny calls home; he senses darkness and hunger, an intractable intent. Johnny will discuss none of it, but there are the things he knows, the things he can do. A lesser friend might accept such abilities as a gift, but Jack has felt what moves in the swamp: the cold of it, the unspeakable fear.

More than an exploration of friendship, persistence, and forgotten power, The Hush leaves all categories behind, and cements Hart’s status as a writer of unique power.

four-stars

About John Hart

John Hart is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, THE KING OF LIES, DOWN RIVER, THE LAST CHILD, IRON HOUSE and REDEMPTION ROAD. The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John has also won the Barry Award, the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Award for Fiction, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, the Southern Book Prize and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty languages and can be found in over seventy countries. A former defense attorney and stockbroker, John spends his time in North Carolina and Virginia, where he writes full-time.