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By Debra Hamel

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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them. The blog, however, will continue, and if you've got a good first line to share for TwitterLit please do so here.

From a random review:


November 2017: Book notices

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Joseph Finder, Extraordinary Powers

I've read a number of Joseph Finder's novels, and normally I'm hooked on them. He writes very good page turners, often weaving in technical or spycraft-y details in just the right measure. This early novel was not as successful. There were exciting parts, and I liked the story overall, but periodically it became bogged down in details that were boring to wade through. There were other issues: the newspaper reports strewn throughout the text were tedious and didn't add much. (The ones at the end were particularly painful to get through. I'd finished the narrative, and now I have to read an article from the New York Times?!) The protagonist seems to be able to do too much after burning his hands. His wife is kind of annoying, whining about being left in the dark about a major reveal toward the end. Anyway, little things, and again, it's an early novel. It won't stop me from reading more by the author.

John Marrs, The Good Samaritan

Laura is ostensibly a perfect soul: she's a loving mother to two daughters and a disabled son, she bakes cookies and fixes zippers for her coworkers, she volunteers--a LOT--at a suicide prevention call center. Indeed, it's this volunteerism that is the highlight of her days. Laura has issues. She's pretty good at hiding them from casual acquaintances, but the darker side of this perfect woman unravels for us in John Marrs' unusual story. It's told primarily from the perspective of two people, Laura and a man who calls the hotline seeking her help. I say the book is unusual because I can't remember rooting against a character as much as I rooted against Laura in this book, and seeing events from her twisted perspective is a little disturbing. The story is dark, so it may turn off some readers, but I'm going to look into more books by this author.

October 2017: Book notices

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Thomas Christopher Greene, The Headmaster's Wife

The book opens with a mystery: Why does the esteemed headmaster of an elite New England boarding school take off his clothes and walk naked through Central Park? Arthur Winthrop's explanation to the police, roughly the first 40 percent of the book, amounts to the story of his life--a walk through the decades of experience that led him to this act--and to a confession. The rest of the book is told from different perspectives and rounds Arthur's story out, so that we arrive at a fuller understanding of the tragedy of this man's fall. It is beautifully written and sad but not crushingly sad and evocative of its setting--crisp leaves crunching underfoot and red brick buildings lining a quadrangle. Really a lovely read.

September 2017: Book notices

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Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance

As I was reading this pleasant, "Very English" cozy set in small-town, post-war England, I found that for the life of me I couldn't remember how the first book in the series--which I reviewed here--was resolved. There were allusions in this one to the unpleasantness of the late Earl of Selchester that that first book revealed, but the details still elude me. It would have been good if readers were reminded a little more strongly (but not too obviously) about the events of the past. This disconnect was worsened by the fact that some events between the first book and this one were skipped here and evidently included in a novella. But who knew? You can kind of piece those events together, but one shouldn't have to. I like the setting and the characters of this series well enough, and it's not as if it's a very complex story being told, so perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention. But I found that when the mystery of this outing's crime began to be unraveled in the last quarter or so of the book, I was forgetting characters and events that were important to that solution. And I didn't care enough to go back and look very hard. Elizabeth Edmondson died in 2016, after this book was published and while she was at work on a third. That book, A Matter of Loyalty, was completed by Edmondson's son and will be published in October of 2017.

Gregg Hurwitz, You're Next

Contractor Mike Wingate and his family are being targeted by a couple of very scary guys for reasons that Mike cannot fathom. Nor can we, although it seems to be related somehow to Mike's past, a sad childhood spent in a foster home waiting in vain for his father to come back for him. The home hardened Mike, taught him some skills, and earned him just the sort of friend you need when people are gunning for you. Hurwitz's stand-alone thriller is one of the most exciting books I've read in a while. The tension eased up briefly for me maybe 70% of the way through, when we started getting some answers about the mystery of Mike's past, but it picked up again. There's really nothing to complain about here. This was a great read.

John Braddock, A Spy's Guide to Thinking

In his Kindle Single, former CIA case officer John Braddock offers a very brief discussion of the DADA system of thinking: from Data to Analysis to Decision to Action. That sounds boring, maybe, but Braddock is engaging. He discusses the thinking strategy from the perspective of a spy on the ground in a foreign country. In particular, he tells a story about being accosted in a subway about his phone, a would-be mugging. The event unfolded in probably less than a minute in real time, but Braddock unpacks the incident, describing his thought process--his data collection and analysis, the options available to him--at each step. I found this fascinating. My only complaint about the Single is that Braddock has opted to write in very short sentences--which he explicitly says he's determined people like--and indeed in sentence fragments. People do like short sentences, it's true, but not all the time! Overdone, it comes off as very choppy and distracting, and I actually find the style almost burdensome. Tone that down, and this would be a pretty perfect short read. There's not a lot of meat here, but there aren't many pages, and the price was right. The author has a meatier follow-up available, A Spy's Guide to Strategy, which I can see myself buying at some point, though I haven't taken the plunge yet.

Lydia Kang, A Beautiful Poison

I wasn't expecting to like this book. In large part, that's because I really dislike the cover--yes, I am that shallow. Plus, it's a historical mystery, set during a period that doesn't interest me much. It's New York in 1918, which means World War I and the Spanish flu, both of which are winnowing the population with ferocity. I began the book mostly to get it off my shelf, thinking I'd probably delete it from my Kindle after the first chapter. Obviously, I didn't. The story centers on a trio of friends with a complicated history: Allene, the recently engaged socialite, her former ladies' companion Birdie, and Jasper, who's roguishly appealing and ambitious. They live in dangerous times, but for their social circle it's particularly dangerous: people around them are being killed with an assortment of poisons, and our protagonists are the only ones who seem to notice or care about the pattern. It's a good mystery, and I was more intrigued than I expected to be. I liked the relationship among the three principals. I suppose Allene is the main character of the three. My one complaint about the book is that I sometimes found her character hard to believe. On the one hand, she is a pampered aristocrat about whom it is possible to believe that she doesn't know how to open her house's front door by herself. On the other hand, she loves chemistry and is wont to conduct experiments with household supplies, which is rather unladylike. She's also excited by the prospect of solving a murder mystery. I realize that people can surprise with their seemingly opposed characteristics, but still, this was a little hard to believe. Apart from that, which only bothered me at times, I quite liked this story.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, When to Rob a Bank

This book is a collection of blog posts from the authors of Freakonomics, which is to say that everything in the book is freely available at freakonomics.com. So why buy it? Well, this collection is curated and organized and at $1.99, when I bought it, the price was right. It's a mixed bag of stuff, some of the articles more interesting than others. The authors' schtick is that they tend to surprise with counterintuitive observations. Within 48 hours of finishing this one I did have occasion to refer to their discussion of the ecological impact of wrapping fruit. I linked to it in a Facebook comment in a thread where people were knee-jerkedly condemning a company for packaging apples in plastic tubes. As with the paper or plastic question, the impact of this sort of packaging is not as obvious as Facebook readers may think. It's good to have someone out there pointing things like this out.

Amélie Antoine, Interference

Gabriel and Chloé are a happily married young couple. Emma is a wedding photographer/would-be photojournalist whose life ultimately intersects with theirs, though it's not immediately clear how she fits in. The story is told in alternating sections from each of their perspectives--Chloé's parts in first person, and Gabriel's and Emma's in third. From the beginning, we're perplexed about what's happening. It's no spoiler to tell you that Chloé dies early on in the story--the book's description tells us as much. But still, her narratives continue, and she has access post-death to information that surprises us, so her status is unclear. Is she a ghost? Is it that kind of book? If so, it's a romantic ghost story: Gabriel in his grief hooks up with Emma...but it's definitely not a straight romance either. When the big reveal comes, about 2/3 of the way in, it's definitely a shocker. The solution to the mystery strains credibility, a lot, but the story remains compelling and interesting. I think this could be turned into a decent movie.

Tim Tigner, Flash

It's hard to tell Tim Tigner's novels apart by appearance, as so many of them feature backlit figures running away from the viewer. This one, at any rate, is a stand-alone thriller. It begins with that active couple from the cover waking up in a car with a dead body but without any memory of the last seven-odd years. It remains for them, of course, to figure out what's going on. Flash won't go down in my list of all-time memorable reads, I'm sure, but it was highly entertaining. I'll definitely be reading more from this author.

August 2017: Book notices

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Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August imagines a world in which a small percentage of the population are ouroborans or kalachakra--individuals who loop through time, reliving their lives indefinitely against a familiar historical backdrop. The big events don't change--at least, they're not supposed to--but the details of any specific life are what the individual makes it: you're born to the same parents, in the same place, but can choose a different career, a different spouse, a different college. The premise sets one thinking, and questions remain: as one Amazon reviewer noted, it's not clear what happens when one ouroboran dies. He goes back to his year of birth, but how does that timeline affect the others so afflicted? There is a villain in this book, with an Evil Scheme worthy of capital letters, but it's not entirely clear exactly what that scheme is. We know it's bad, but the details are sketchy. My only other complaint is that the book is longer than it needs to be. It's a richly imagined world, and that imagining takes time and pages, but still, I thought there were whole chapters that probably could have been lopped off without losing anything. At any rate, I don't want to dwell on these complaints, because I really enjoyed the book quite a lot, and found myself reading for long stretches when I should have been sleeping. It also brought back fond memories of Ken Grimwood's Replay, which has a similar theme and is highly recommended (my review).

Rachel Caine, Stillhouse Lake

This was a Kindle First selection in June of 2017, so in other words, it's probably not a book I would have known about had Amazon not offered a free copy to Prime members. Thank you, Amazon! What a taut, exciting read, from its grab-you-by-the-throat prologue to its cliffhanger ending. (The first thing I did upon finishing Stillhouse Lake was preorder its sequel, which is due out in December.) The book tells the story of "Gwen," the former wife of a psychopathic serial killer. She's now on the run, not so much from him but from the vigilantes who see her as complicit in her husband's crimes. She'll do anything to keep her kids safe, and of course she's called upon to do just that in this book. As far as I could tell, the story was perfectly constructed. At least, I didn't notice any problems as I was swiping furiously through the pages in the wee hours of the last couple of mornings. Looking forward to the sequel.

Penn Jillette, Presto

Presto is Penn Jillette's loose, somewhat rambling account of how he lost over a hundred pounds in the months before his 60th birthday in March of 2015. Confronted with the medical necessity of losing weight—the alternative was a stomach sleeve—Penn opted instead to go on a severely restricted diet under the mentorship of his friend Ray Cronise (and under the close scrutiny of medical doctors). The first part of this diet was a two-week potato fast—nothing but potatoes—and that was followed by the gradual reintroduction of other foods. Nowadays Penn eats mostly whole plants and is active and feeling better than he has in decades, for which, as a fan, I'm grateful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 3.54.35 PMMy daughters with Penn after a Penn and Teller
show in New York in the summer of 2015.

The book could have lost some weight itself: it's not the tangents that bother me—I kind of expect that (as well as a flood of curse words) when I'm reading something by Penn Jillette—but there was a lot of repetition in the book, and that could have been excised to good effect. Meanwhile, I have no interest in joining Penn on his extreme weight loss journey, because I couldn't handle the whole plant diet, but I do find the potato phase that he underwent intriguing. I've been inspired to read more about the idea in Tim Steele's The Potato Hack.

Paul Cleave, Trust No One

Jerry Grey is a successful crime novelist who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's at the age of only 49. As his dementia worsens, he begins losing the ability to separate his real life from the stories he's published. His behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable and problematic, and he winds up confessing to murder. The good news is that the crime he confesses to is from the pages of his first book. The bad news is that that book was based on a true story, the murder of Jerry's neighbor, and neither he nor we can be confident that Jerry is not in fact the knife-wielding sadist who killed the girl. There are other murders too, and Jerry looks pretty good for those crimes as well. The story jumps around, moving forward from Jerry's diagnosis, and it's picked up again later, after a major event that slowly gets pieced together. Jerry is quite the unreliable narrator, since his memory is spotty, and the information he gets from others may or may not be accurate. Part of the story is told by Jerry in his "Madness Journal," which he began writing early on as a way of reminding his future, forgetful self about things.

The story kept me guessing—although I actually guessed pretty well, as it turned out. The author cleverly keeps us and his protagonist in the dark, and it is all very confusing but nicely woven together, except for two things. First, the book should have been shorter. It dragged in parts, particularly the Madness Journal parts. And second, and more importantly, the Alzheimer's aspect of the plot just can't be taken seriously. As a patient with advanced dementia, Jerry is just far too competent, piecing clues together and reading his old notes, writing, making phone calls, getting around town. Plus he has an alter ego who is taking on a life of his own, as if a split personality is characteristic of the disease. So I kind of pretended that Jerry had some unspecified disease that diminished him mentally while allowing him to do the stuff he was allegedly doing, and that helped.

July 2017: Book notices

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Jimin Han, A Small Revolution

A Small Revolution was one of Amazon's Kindle First selections a few months ago. I grabbed it because it was free, although I probably wouldn't have otherwise. The book's description had things that appealed and things that didn't. On the plus side, a "tense standoff" with an unhinged gunman. But that was weighed down in my view by "abusive household" and "political protests." Ultimately, my first reaction to the book's description pretty much mirrored my reaction to the book itself. The story is about Korean-American student Yoona Lee, who's a freshman at college back when I was a freshman at college, 1985. The story alternates between the present—that tense standoff I mentioned—and the recent past, the summer that Yoona and her kidnapper spent in South Korea, when Yoona fell in love with Jaesung, another American student on tour there, against a backdrop of violent political protests. But something happened to Jaesung after she left. We find out about that in dribs and drabs as the story jumps back and forth in time, part of it addressed by Yoona to Jaesung as if in a letter. It's difficult to know exactly what happened. Finding out the truth is complicated for Yoona by the questionable evidence hinted at by her captor and by the difficulties inherent in international communication in the 1980s. It all feels very uncertain, in a nightmarish sort of way, as Yoona tries to piece things together in frustratingly small steps. I was frustrated reading it. The story was, to an extent, gripping, at least gripping enough for me to keep reading, bent as I was on reaching some clarity. But I finished the book just as frustrated, without finding any real answers—or at least not satisfying ones. 

Britney King, Water Under the Bridge

Water Under the Bridge is the first in a strange trilogy featuring a couple who find each other and fall in love, bonding, as so many do, over their shared interests. "Kate" (an assumed name) and Jude make a surprisingly endearing twosome considering that what they're primarily interested in is murder. He's an assassin; she gets antsy when she hasn't poisoned anyone in a while. They were made for each other. This outing tracks their relationship in chapters that alternative between his voice and hers, as they recount their shared history in what purports to be a series of letters to one another. The book may not be to everyone's taste, but I appreciate its dark comedy, particularly when Kate and Jude try to make a go of life in the suburbs: it's hard to bury bodies in your backyard when you've got neighbors nosing around the azaleas. Books two and three in the series are already available. I've got a sample of number two, Dead in the Water, warming a spot on my Kindle.

Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

There are some aspects of this book that I love, and some that really disappointed me. On the plus side, there is the setting, a quirky bookstore on an island off Cape Cod. It's run by a curmudgeonly widower, the titular A.J. Fikry, and he is joined by a supporting cast of quirky characters whom I would be happy to get to know better. The best part of the book has to do with Fikry's relationship with a publisher's sales rep, new to the job as the book opens, who periodically visits the island to try to convince him to order titles from her company's catalogue. They are both quick-witted, and their relationship is sweet and marked by charming banter. This is all good. Indeed, I could have spent a twelve-book series in this store and with these people, slowly watching their lives unfold over author events and the small dramas and mysteries of life. Alas, the story I would have enjoyed over 3000 pages is served to us in fewer than 300. There are parts of the book where we skip ahead years, as if the whole life of this A.J. Fikry simply must be shoehorned into the space of a single book. I hate this. For one thing, I find it depressing when whole years flash by with the turn of a page. But I also feel that these jumps forward in time distance us from the characters. The child we're getting to know at 5 is in high school a page or two later, and now we don't know her at all. And I really don't think there's any advantage to this approach, to our being shown so long a stretch of our characters' lives. A sliver of that time, delivered unrushed, would have been far sweeter.

June 2017: Book notices

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Blake Crouch, Good Behavior

Good Behavior  is a collection of three connected novellas about Letty Dobesh. She's a talented thief with demons--an unhappy childhood and a drug addiction that keeps sidelining her and that has separated her from her six-year-old son. I suppose I'm not keen on drug-addicted characters as a rule, but I like Letty, and I like the capers she gets involved in. Turns out, Crouch's novellas have spawned a TNT TV series, also titled Good Behavior. I have yet to see it, but it's now been added to my to-do list (as has Wayward Pines, which is based on Crouch's Wayward Pines trilogy--see my reviews). I'm not sure if there will be any more Letty Dobesh books, but if there are, I'll be reading them.

May 2017: Book notices

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Tim Tigner, Pushing Brilliance

Pushing Brilliance introduces Kyle Achilles, a former Olympic biathlete and CIA operative, who runs into some serious trouble when he goes to his father's 60th birthday/retirement party. Achilles ultimately has to prove himself and save the world, all while dodging hitmen and the authorities, but this is the sort of thing he excels at. He's a likable protagonist with formidable skills, not least of which is being able to climb up seemingly sheer buildings and cliff faces with the agility of a monkey. A fun read.

April 2017: Book notices

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Luke Smitherd, Kill Someone

The premise of this book appealed to me a lot. The doorbell rings, and our protagonist—21-year-old Chris Summers—is woken from a dead sleep into a nightmare. A pair of enigmatic villains at the front door introduce him to his new reality: Chris has to kill someone or five kidnapped girls will be dismembered and killed. There are a lot of intricate rules attached to the task they've assigned him, failure to follow which will have catastrophic consequences for the kidnapped girls. And the whole enterprise is so carefully planned out that Chris, from the moment he opens his front door that morning, really has no choice but to cooperate. We follow him as he tries to carry out the thugs' demands while coping with his conscience and fears. It's an interesting read, because it will surely get you thinking about the choices you would make in Chris's position—whom you would kill and how you'd do it. I liked pretty much everything about this book except for how the story ultimately played out. The mystery behind the enigmatic villains is ultimately cleared up, and, eh, that party really strains credibility for me and makes the book less satisfying. Nonetheless, this Luke Smitherd fellow seems to have an unusual sensibility. I think he's an author to watch.

January 2017: Book notices

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Caroline Eriksson, The Missing

The Missing begins with a nightmarish scenario. Greta goes out on a lake in a little boat with Alex and four-year-old Smilla. She stays in the boat while they get out to explore a small island. When Greta comes to from an apparent daydream, Alex and Smilla are simply gone. The reader can feel Greta's panic as she tries to find them, except that Greta doesn't respond as most of us do. Rather, her efforts to find them are leaden in the way that one's movements might be in a dream. She forgets what's she doing. She seems dull or slow or drugged. Maddeningly, she doesn't take the logical first step, or at least second step, which is to call the police and have them initiate a search. We soon come to distrust Greta's view of reality: Do Alex and Smilla in fact exist? If so, did Greta kill them and forget doing it? It's impressive that for a long time we really have no idea how much of what's happening is real. Still, the first part of the story is more annoying than not. The book becomes less annoying eventually, when answers to the story's mysteries begin to seep out through the gauze of the storytelling. Ultimately I'd say the book is satisfying, though there is one huge coincidence at the end that I believe remains unaccounted for. I'm not sorry to have read this one, but I come down very much in the middle on it.

Stephenie Meyer, The Chemist

I read and enjoyed Stephenie Meyer's Eclipse novels some ten years ago. (Huh. I'd forgotten the firestorm that erupted over the publication of the fourth book in that series! Check out my review: http://www.book-blog.com/2008/12/meyer-stephenie.html.) So I guess I'm not surprised that I liked The Chemist, but I am surprised at how different it was from her other books, not only in subject matter (no shiny vamps, nothing even fantastical), but in writing style. "Alex" is a former interrogator, whose nickname (The Chemist) comes from her preferred interrogation tools. But now she's on the run because her former employers want her dead. Her goal now is simply to stay alive, and she goes to great lengths—described in fascinating (to me) detail by Meyer—to keep her pursuers off her track and to ensure her safety should they find her. That's the status quo, but of course something happens to disrupt her routine. I really enjoyed this book and the trio of main characters, enough so that I kind of wish it were the beginning of a series. I don't think it will be, though.

Sholes, Lynn; Moore, Joe: Brain Trust

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Stone Creek Books © 2016, 374 pages [amazon]
4.5 stars

Brain Trust is the new stand-alone thriller by authors Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore, and I think it may be my favorite of theirs to date. The book tells the related stories of two characters. Maggie Hayden is the widowed mother of a math prodigy who's been having problems at school since his father's death. Maggie's life seems to be falling apart until a too-good-to-be-true job offer from out of the blue solves her financial and her son's social difficulties. She relocates to a planned community founded by her new employer, Reichert Pharmaceuticals. The other lead character is Brian Wheeler, who also works for Reichert, and who begins to suspect early on in the book that the company is up to no good. Maggie and Brian's stories eventually overlap, as they independently discover more information about Reichert and its nefarious plans.

For the most part, the book alternates between its two story lines every chapter. (There are just a couple of exceptions to this plan.) This approach can be problematic if it's poorly done, but it works very well in Brain Trust. First, the jumps between the stories were not at all jarring. With each chapter I immediately fell into the next story again without forgetting my place in it, or forgetting characters' names, for example. Second, both of the stories were equally compelling. I found this very impressive. And as with all the Sholes/Moore books I have read (a fair number now!), the authors' collaboration is seamless. I have no idea how they share the responsibility of writing, but I have never detected any differences in style within their books. Brain Trust is a good, fast read and comes recommended! (My thanks to the authors for sending me a review copy of the book.)

About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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