Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Won’t catch me showing any hurt: THE LATE SHOW.

The Late Show (Renée Ballard, #1)The Late Show by Michael Connelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE LATE SHOW introduces us to a new character in the Connelly canon: Renee Ballard, a young female detective in the LAPD striving to prove herself. Ballard works the night shift, where she picks up evening cases. But Ballard hates that she never gets to see an investigation to fruition--always turning her cases over to the daytime detectives. So when she is assigned two late shift cases, the shooting of a young female in a nightclub and the horrible beating of a transsexual prostitute, she finagles a way to stay involved with both. This means still working the night shift while--mostly secretly--tracking down leads on her cases during the day. In doing so, Ballard gets caught up in department politics and a case that could lead her to immense danger.

Connelly is just an excellent writer; I love all his books, and I was excited and interested to hear he was creating a new character. I've been in love with his Detective Bosch for years. This novel is basically vintage Connelly with a modern twist, with Ballard being extremely knowledgeable about the night shift and police procedure. Connelly is still clearly up-to-date on the current workings of a police department. At times, you almost forget you're not reading about Bosch and his shenanigans.

But, in saying that, I feel as if I don't give Renee Ballard true justice. She's a wonderful character--a strong, yet damaged female, who is smart and fascinating. It's a pleasure to read about such a complicated individual. Ballard is on the late shift (aka the late show) because she accused a former supervisor of sexual harassment and was subsequently blackballed. Yet she's dedicated to her job, almost to the point of obsession. At times, I was amazed she could get away with some of the stuff she pulled. (Sound like any other Connelly characters we know?)

Nonetheless, Ballard pulls us into an incredibly compelling mystery. It started a tad slow for me, but quickly picks up and remains quite mesmerizing. The cases are well-plotted and exciting, and Connelly gives us peeks into Ballard's personal life, without revealing everything. The novel spends a lot of time focusing on her thoughts and feelings, but is still quite compelling.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. I'm excited to see Connelly with a new character and look forward to more of Renee Ballard in the future.

You can read my review of Connelly's THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE here and my review of THE CROSSING here - both feature Connelly's Detective Harry Bosch.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Maybe love is waiting at the end of every room: EMMA IN THE NIGHT.

Emma in the NightEmma in the Night by Wendy Walker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cassandra Tanner and her sister, Emma, disappeared on the same night three years ago. Cass was fifteen and her lovely, enigmatic older sister seventeen. Suddenly, Cass shows up on her mother's doorstep, desperately begging her family to find Emma, whom she claims is being against her will on a remote island in Maine. Immediately, the FBI is called back to the case, including forensic psychiatrist Abby Winter, who has been haunted by the investigation since Emma and Cass went missing. Abby had a lot of theories about Emma and Cass' case--and saw similarities in their mother to her own--but kept most of these thoughts to herself. But now that Cass is back, with a story that doesn't completely add up, Abby realizes she might not be so off track after all. And that there might be a lot more to Emma and Cass' disappearance then everyone thinks.

This book is a tough one for me. It started off in great fashion--completely sucking me in. It's an interesting novel, as in some ways it seems like a rather straightforward tale of two missing girls, but it's also incredibly puzzling and keeps you guessing from the start. I think my brow was probably actually furrowed as I was reading. It's hard to trust anyone in this novel, or know who to believe, and that has you frantically turning pages, trying to figure out what on earth is the actual truth.

The story flips between Cass' point of view and that of Abby's. I was intrigued by Cass' story, though not particularly attached to her and while I sympathized with Abby, wasn't really drawn to her as a character, either. I actually sort of wanted to rush through her sections so I could get back to Cass and what was actually happening (or had happened) to her, and by proxy, Emma.

Make no mistake--the Tanner/Martin family saga is a twisted one. This book will shock and bewilder you--this is not a nice set of characters. Emma and Cass' mother is hateful and downright despicable, as are many of the supporting characters. Even Emma--via stories--is tough to care for at times. The premise is that Ms. Martin, the mother, has narcissistic personality disorder--the same disorder that affected Abby's mother as well. At first, this works, as you're shocked by the treatment of Emma and Cass and what it's done to each girl.

But, admittedly, after a while, I grew a little weary of this plot device. The disorder and its effects are explained repeatedly. If Walker could have explained it and moved on, I would have enjoyed the novel a lot more. I found myself skimming over some of the repetitive psychological descriptions, so I could get on with the story. As the story continues, the family almost seems too fractured and horrible; I was shocked at the continuing tale of horror regarding her mother, stepfather, stepbrother, and sister that Cass kept weaving. Goodness--they come across as diabolical, but not real.

I actually really enjoyed Walker's previous novel, ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN - particularly because the ending lived up to the earlier parts of the novel and shocked me. Here, I am pretty sure the intent was the same, but it didn't quite pan out. By the time we reached the end, I was tired of the psychological drama and ramblings. I hadn't exactly figured out what had happened--I'll definitely give Walker that--but I knew something was up. I also felt so much of all of this could have been avoided from the start by Cass, but I won't go into that for spoilers sake.

So, alas. As I started this one, I really thought it was going to be a novel that I was going to recommend to everyone. By the end, I was a bit let down. I'll go with 3 stars overall, since it certainly did keep me flipping the pages.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 08/08/2017.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

She don't need nobody to be her man: MRS. FLETCHER.

Mrs. FletcherMrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a divorcee in her mid-40s, Eve Fletcher is struggling with the fact that her only son, Brendan, is heading off to college. Suddenly, Eve is truly alone for the first time. Shortly after she takes Brendan to college, Eve receives a strange text message reading, "U r my MILF!" Baffled, the message takes Eve down a strange path that includes an obsession with MILF-related porn. Suddenly, her regular life--work as the Executive Director at the local senior center, taking classes at the community college, and her various friendships--seems somewhat tinged by her porn habit. Meanwhile, Brendan isn't finding college all he thought it would be. His fellow chauvinistic/jock roommate is suddenly shunning him and his partying habits are catching up with him. Before they know it, Eve and Brendan are on a collision course for some crazy and interesting situations.

First of all, don't bother with this novel if you can't handle sexual or porn references in your reading: let's just get that out there. There are all sorts of said references in Perrotta's latest and while you could argue that they are plot driven, it certainly gets to be a bit much at times.

For me, this one was a tad odd. Parts of it I really enjoyed; others, I just found bizarre and strange (and I've read other Perrotta works, so I know somewhat what to expect with him). The early parts of the novel were almost tender and hit a bit close to home, as I'm the only child of a single (also divorced) mother. The relationship between Eve and Brendan is interesting and well-explored, and you certainly have sympathy for Eve. In fact, many of the adults in this novel are so incredibly sad and lonely--and they have some extremely realistic moments and situations.

Alas, Brendan is really just insufferable, and you can't help but like Eve a little less as the result. I rarely enjoyed any of the sections told from his point of view. As the novel progresses, it increases its perspectives--bringing in the secondary characters--and you really do get drawn into their lives. Perrotta is an engaging writer and while not all his characters in this one are likeable, nor do they always act rationally, they are dynamic. Indeed, this is often just a plain old weird and bizarre novel. Some places I found myself thinking Is this really happening?? (Oh it was.)

So, in the end this is an amusing tale--with a surprising depth--that offers a fairly accurate portrayal about society and sexuality/gender. The characters are certainly interesting, even if pieces can be ridiculous and preposterous. The ending left me feeling a little let down, which was a tad disappointing, and kept it from being higher than a 3-star review for me.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 08/01/2017.

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Always snatching defeat, it's the devil I know: ARE YOU SLEEPING.

Are You SleepingAre You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Josie Buhrman's father, Chuck, was shot in the head in their family home when Josie and her twin sister, Lanie, were teens. Their seventeen-year-old next-door neighbor, Warren Cave, was convicted of the crime, based mainly on Lanie's testimony that she saw Warren shoot her father. Now, twelve years later, Chuck's case is being featured on a new podcast, called RECONSIDERED (think SERIAL), featuring crime reporter Poppy Parnell. Poppy has unearthed the case at the behest of Warren's mother, Melanie, who claims he's innocent. Suddenly, everyone in America is talking about the Buhrman family. For Josie--who has changed her last name and fled her home state of Illinois--this is particularly disturbing, since she's never told her boyfriend, Caleb, about her family. Josie and Lanie are estranged, their mother lives in a cult in California, and she only has sporadic contact with her family through her Aunt A and cousin Ellen. However, when Ellen calls with the news that Josie's mom has passed away, she realizes she needs to return to Illinois and face her demons. And the fact that perhaps Warren isn't her father's killer.

This was a compelling first novel that definitely kept me reading. It offers an interesting commentary on our society's focus on these sorts of "lurid" family crimes and the media formats in which we rapidly digest them. However, as the novel points out, society gets sucked into true crime shows without realizing the impact the focus may have on those associated with said crime. For Josie, Lanie, and the entire Burhman family, RECONSIDERED roars through their life like a freight train. The novel features excerpts from the podcast itself, which is an incredibly effective format--interspersing the chapters with the podcast excerpts, reddit threads, and Twitter feed is powerful and really builds suspense. Further, Josie tells the story in the present, but often remembers back to the past, only adding to the tension.

For a while, thanks to the format and storyline, I thought this would be a 4-star for sure. I did not enjoy, however, how the book relies on one of my least favorite devices (well-known to those who read my reviews frequently): a relationship or plot built on shaky lies. So much of Josie and Caleb's relationship is just so, and it drove me crazy; it just seemed ridiculous that she wouldn't tell him the truth, and I was so frustrated. So, there's that. The plot also felt vaguely familiar at times--maybe I'm just reading too many thrillers anymore. But the whole blame the kid with a satanic background for a crime, sisters fighting too much over silly things--that all felt a bit done. Also, Lanie and Josie's fighting and drama was a tad much for me at times.

In the end, this one wasn't a shocker, but it was certainly compelling. It kept me reading the entire time: it's captivating and disturbing. I loved the format of the book, and I'm impressed that this is Barber's first--I look forward to her next novel. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 08/01/2017.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

I guess I thought you were a golden idol: CAMINO ISLAND.

Camino IslandCamino Island by John Grisham

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Princeton University houses five valuable manuscripts--all the originals of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels. They are housed in the basement under a veil of security, but not enough to stop a band of clever thieves from breaking in and stealing them. This sets loose a chain of events and angers both the FBI, who is trying to track down the criminals, and the insurance company, as they are on the hook for $25 million unless the manuscripts are returned. Meanwhile, on touristy Camino Island, Bruce Cable runs a popular bookstore/coffee shop. Thanks to a lot of persistence and hard work, he's managed to keep it profitable even in the digital age. He's also a major backer of the many authors who come through his town on book tours. But few of those authors, or Bruce's patrons, know that Bruce keeps a vault in his shop housing a variety of rare books and manuscripts--some stolen. Finally, we turn to Mercer Mann--Mercer's just lost her teaching position, and she's three years overdue on delivering her next book to her publisher. She's also drowning in student loans. Mercer's approached by a beautiful and elegant woman who offers her a lot of money to get close to Bruce Cable and learn all about his web of secrets. Trouble, as you may guess, ensues.

I have a soft spot for Grisham, that's for sure. I fell in love with his first novels as a young teen, and I still love Darby Shaw, Gray Grantham, Mark Sway, Reverend Roy, and Reggie Love as if they were real people. Grisham and his family have a home in my town, and we claim him as one of our own. His books are often an easy escape, and CAMINO ISLAND falls into that category. Is it as memorable as The Pelican Brief or The Client? No. Is it a fun diversion for a few days? Sure.

CAMINO ISLAND is a change from most of Grisham's legal thrillers--there are no lawyers or court room scenes here, just some tricky criminals, a heist, and the aftermath. You'll need to keep track of the various bad guys in the beginning, but once you get past that, it's an easy breezy read--much like the Florida setting where most of the novel is set. Mercer's a pleasant, albeit not very complicated protagonist, and Bruce Cable is a trip. It's also a detailed exploration into the world of rare books--something I knew little to nothing about.

Overall, this is fun, easy thriller. There are a few twists and turns along the way to keep you interested, and Grisham's characters are always enjoyable. The ending wraps up fairly quickly after all the build-up, so be prepared for that. Is it Grisham's best? No. But it will keep you entertained for a couple of days. 3.5 stars.

You can read my reviews of Grisham's novels THE WHISTLER here and ROGUE LAWYER here.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

I don't need anything money can buy: THE MARRIAGE PACT.

The Marriage PactThe Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Newlyweds Alice and Jake don't think much of it when a client from Alice's law firm invites himself to their wedding and then gives them a mysterious wedding gift. But they soon discover the gift is offering them membership in a exclusive group called The Pact, whose main goal is to keep couples married. The Pact comes with a series of strict rules detailed in the group's Manual. Jake, a psychologist, is interested in the institution of marriage and excited to find an organization that he thinks will keep his beloved wife, Alice, a former rock singer turned lawyer, interested and focused on their union. Things change quickly for the couple, though, when The Pact thinks that Alice is breaking the rules. Suddenly, Alice and Jake find themselves stuck in The Pact, whose members seem to go to any lengths to enforce their rules--and to keep their members within the group.

The set up to the book is certainly interesting: joining an exclusive group focused on marriage. It's a secretive society of sorts with a series of rules focused on a single goal: keeping your marriage intact. And if you don't follow those rules: there are consequences, often extreme ones.
I can't deny that this book is very creepy at times. It also causes you to question the sanity of this couple. Why on earth would they sign these documents and join the Pact? Jake, okay, perhaps: he supposedly is desperate to keep Alice. But Alice, for pete's sake, is a lawyer: she has to know that signing anything, even if you think it's a joke (and this is not presented as a joke) could have serious consequences. Instead, she blindly signs because she wants to go to a party?! Perhaps they deserved what they get! (And maybe I'm a little bitter.) The book often reminded me of The Girl Before: another novel where you have to completely suspend disbelief that people would even entertain living life by a series of ridiculous rules to somewhat enjoy the book.

That's not to say I didn't sometimes feel sorry for Alice, or even Jake. I was drawn a bit more to Alice and often wished I could have heard her perspective on things sometimes, instead of just her husband's. Rather, things just seemed so drawn out: so much of Jake ruminating about Alice, their marriage, marriage in general, life, etc. It was a little much for me.

Still, as I mentioned the book definitely has its creepy moments. Even with those, it took me forever to read it. I never felt compelled to pick it up (so much talking and thinking from Jake) and probably finished at least two other books over the 10-day (!) span it took me to read this. I was more intrigued and interested in the last fourth or so of the book and then pretty much let down by the end, so there you have it. There's one good twist in there, and I'm going with a three-star rating, but I'm definitely not in the camp raving about this one. However, lots of people loved this book, so you may enjoy it a lot more than me.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review - it is available everywhere as of 07/25/2017.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Whether you're late for church or you're stuck in jail: THE ALMOST SISTERS.

The Almost SistersThe Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leia Birch Briggs is a self-professed nerd: a graphic novelist with a penchant for comic books, Wonder Woman, and online gaming. So it's not exactly surprising that, with the help of tequila, she'd fall for a handsome man in a Batman costume at a comics convention in Atlanta. What comes next is a bit more of a surprise: Leia is pregnant from that one-night stand, and it's up to her to tell her over-protective family and very Southern grandmother. To top it off, said Batman was African American: not exactly the easiest thing to tell your Baptist family with Southern roots. But before Leia can even tell her family, she gets some disturbing news from Alabama about her paternal grandmother, Birchie. As Leia rushes to Alabama to help Birchie, she also learns that her stepsister, Rachel, is struggling. So Leia and her teenage niece, Lavender, head to Alabama to assist Birchie and break Leia's big news. But it turns out Birchie has some pretty big news of her own. News that will change everything Leia has ever known about her family.

This is one of those ARCs that I don't remember requesting, but I'm really glad I did. It was a pleasant surprise - just a fun, warm novel, even with its serious (and extremely timely) subject matter. I warmed to nerdy Leia immediately (and not just because I have a cat named after said Princess): she's real and flawed and quite relatable. All of the women in Leia's life are well-written and their own people: sweet Lavender, trying to figure out her way in the world as her parents' marriage implodes; Rachel, Lavender's mom, a perfectionist struggling with a lot of imperfection; Wattie, Birchie's best friend, an African American woman living with her in Alabama; and then the amazing Birchie herself, written so impeccably that I could just see her stubborn, regal face pour vibrantly from every page. I fell hard for each of these women and their struggles became mine.

Sure, a lot of this book is a little predictable, but the racial tensions and struggles that Jackson writes about are not: they are real and true. Jackson captures the racial divisions so well - the sweet, kind sweet tea side of the South versus the dark, racist, segregated aspects. I could just picture Birchville and its townsfolk. The novel is excellent in that so much of the story is humorous, yet the serious side is very well-done, too.

Leia is a graphic novelist and portions of the book describe a graphic novel she'd written -- I'm not a huge graphic novel fan, so I wasn't completely into those pieces, but I was able to slide past them. The parallels in Leia's novel to the South didn't elude me, so I appreciated why that was included, even if I didn't always want to read a summary of a supposedly graphic novel. Some of the symbolism and metaphors may be a little too forced/spelled out for us at times, but I still enjoyed the novel very much. Pieces of it made me laugh out loud - Leia's sense of humor and her predicaments, Birchie's tough sensibility. Birchie and Wattie's dynamic was wonderful, and I really cared for those two.

In the end, I really enjoyed this one. There's a great story here as well a plot that doesn't gloss over racial discord. I appreciated both. The cast of characters is great -- real, funny, humorous, and heartbreaking. Certainly recommend.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Librarything (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere.

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