Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Beginning With Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe

The year is 1951 and the place is Knoxville, Tennessee.  Gail and Hanna are best friends, eight years old and raised like sisters and even sharing a crib for months.  But will that friendship last?  Sophie, Hannah's mother, doubts it for a very good reason.  Gail is the daughter of her white employers, the Madisons Hanna is her daughter and an African American.  Although Sophie and Hanna live with the Madisons all week, there is a definite line drawn.  They live in the basement and it's clear who is in charge.

As the girls grow older, Gail still wants the friendship she has known, but after Sophie and Hanna move back home, Hanna starts to realize the very big differences in the girl's circumstances and futures.  The relationship gets strained and then when the girls are fifteen, Sophie and her family move to Philadelphia.  Gail is desperate to retain her friendship with Hanna but her mother, Bessie, sees this as the perfect opportunity to put an end to a relationship she has been uncomfortable with for years.  When Hanna writes to Gail, Bessie hides the letters until they slow to a trickle and then stop.

But Gail is determined.  Once she is out and in college, she finds a way to locate Hanna and try to rekindle things.  This becomes the pattern over the years.  No matter how many months or even years have gone by, Gail is determined to keep trying with Hanna and is there for all the big events in Hanna's life.   As the two age, they come to an understanding about the one friendship that has endured for all their lives.

Jill McCroskey Coupe has written a thoughtful novel about the meaning of friendship and about the awkwardness that characterized even the best of friendships that crossed the ethnic line in the 1950's and 1960's in this country.  The two women in the novel are about ten years older than me and I remember those times and the clear line that was drawn.  I grew up in a small Southern town and there were definitely two different experiences depending on your skin color.   This novel is recommended for readers of women's fiction and those interested in exploring what friendship means.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Echo Park by Michael Connelly

Some cases get under a detective's skin.  For Harry Bosch, one of those was the disappearance thirteen years ago of Marie Gesto.  All signs pointed to her being killed but her body has never been located so her parents and the case are left in limbo.  Harry believed that the culprit was the son of a local wealthy businessman but the lawyers representing him kept Bosch from getting a confession.  But he has never forgotten the case and still reviews it periodically, hoping to see something he missed.

But crime goes on.  The latest case making the news was the Echo Park Bagman.  This was a young man who was pulled over one night in his van, only to have the police find the remains of two women in bags in the back.  There's no doubt this is a serial killer and he is going away for good.  But Bosch is amazed when the word filters down that the man has confessed to the murder of Marie Gesto as well as other victims.

As part of a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, the man agrees to lead detectives to Marie's body.  Harry and his partner are in the accompanying team, along with forensic investigators, the DA and other policemen.  The man leads them to a location and all indications are that there is a body buried there.  But on the way back to custody, the man breaks free, killing two officers and wounding Bosch's partner.  Now he is on the loose and Bosch is having doubts about his confession.  Can he find the man before he kills again and can he finally find the truth about Marie's case?

This is the twelfth Harry Bosch novel.  In this one, Bosch's partner is Kiz Rider, a young woman who is partnering with Bosch in the Open/Unsolved Unit.  Readers of the series know how close Bosch is to his partners as they literally depend on each other to come home safely at night.  The mystery is satisfying and the machinations of Bosch's mind as he puts the clues together is fascinating.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Most people have heard of Alexandre Dumas, the author of such classics as The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Man In The Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers.  What most people don't know is that his swashbuckling adventure novels were based on his own father, whose life was more unbelievable than the fictional characters we now find entertaining. 

Alex Dumas was born in what is now known as Haiti, the son of a disgraced French aristocrat and a native woman.  His life until he was in his late teens was on the island, with long years spent in hiding along with his father in the most remote areas.  When Dumas was seventeen, his father came into his title and returned to France to move into a castle and live the life of a wealthy man.  He sold Alex into slavery to pay for his passage, but then retrieved him.  Alex was given an amazing education but he really shone at the academy where nobles sent their sons to learn sword fighting and military maneuvers.  When he and his father fell out, Alex joined the French military.

He joined at the bottom of the ranks but his talent and striking physique made him stand out.  Soon he was in charge of other men and loved nothing more than going out on scouting maneuvers.  This was the time of the beginning of the French Revolution and Dumas was a full fledged enthusiast as the mottoes of freedom for all struck a chord with him.  Dumas' talent and bravery insured his rapid rise until he was named a General at a young age.

As General Dumas, he was given some of the most difficult military missions and was successful at all of them.  Along with his own skill in fighting, he was also a master tactician and strategist.  Another General was making his way up the ranks.  Napoleon was also fighting to rise to the top and when he was made head of the Army, he took Dumas along with the French army in a surprising move to capture Egypt and from there he hoped to win the Arabic nations and onward into India.

But the relationship between the two men was not a smooth one.  Napoleon was not fond of Dumas, who towered over him and who commanded his men through respect not fear.  Napoleon left Egypt, leaving his men behind to make their own way home.  Dumas and others made it only as far as Italy, where they were imprisoned for several years.  This imprisonment broke Dumas' health and when he returned it was to see the advances made by those of color being rolled back and his own military backpay and ability to serve in jeopardy.  He died at forty, a broken man except for his wife and two children.

Tom Reiss has written of an interesting and amazing man who most have never heard of.  Along with Dumas' story, the reader learns about the sugar trade of the French and the slavery that supported it, the French Revolution and those who played a part in it, the military maneuvers and battles that occurred during this time, and the rise of Napoleon.  This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for biography and it is a fascinating character study of a man whose life illustrated the times he lived in.  This book is recommended for readers of history and those who grew up loving the swashbuckling adventure novels of Alexandre Dumas. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam

The Saleem family lives in Brooklyn.  Anwar is a pharmacist and his wife, Hashi, runs a wedding consultation business along with a beauty salon.  Hashi was Anwar's best friend's little sister when they met and married in Pakistan.  As the situation over the separation with India worsened, they emigrated to America.  When the brother and his wife were killed in the conflict, the Saleem's didn't think twice but brought over their niece, Ella, who was two at the time.  They raised Ella as their own daughter along with their other child, Charu.

Now years later, everything has changed.  The girls are pretty much grown.  Ella has just finished her first year at college while Charu is in her last year of high school, eagerly awaiting her turn at college.  Both girls face some of the issues women do as they give up their childhood years.  Ella isn't sure of her sexuality but is pretty sure she is only attracted to women, first her cousin, Charu, then Charu's best friend, Maya.  Charu is ready to give up her virginity but not sure if that should be with another Muslim or one of the other boys she finds so attractive.

Anwar and Hashi also have issues.  Anwar's brutish older brother has moved in on them when his wife kicked him out.  He is a constant negative presence, always carping and complaining at how the Saleem's household is run.  Both want him out but they aren't sure how to accomplish that.  The couple worry about the girls and how to raise them as good Muslim women.  Their marriage also has become humdrum and neither is sure how to fix that.  As the problems mount, the family decides to go back to visit family in Pakistan and work on the issues there.

This is a debut novel.  Islam has written a book that has hope as the family works through issues and they are resolved.  The book suffers a bit from first novel issues.  There are a multitude of things that happen, fires, sexual orientations and awakenings, deaths, dark family secrets, infidelity and family relationships.  Any one of these issues could have served as the basis for an interesting novel but instead too much happens and the impact of each revelation is muted by the next one coming right behind it.  It will be interesting to read later novels by this author as she finds her pacing a bit more.  This book is recommended for readers of family relationships and those interested in learning about other cultures.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Final Girls by Riley Sager

They call them Final Girls.  There's Lisa, the only survivor of ten sorority girls who died when a man broke into the house.  Samantha who survived a horrific attack at a hotel where she was on her first shift as a maid.  Quincy Carpenter who went with her friends on a weekend getaway to a cabin in the woods only to have it become a slaughter house when a man broke out of a nearby mental hospital.  The world and media was fascinated with their stories and wanted to know why, why, why were they the only ones to survive?

Years later, there are still consequences to surviving such horror.  Lisa, who is the oldest, finished her education and became a psychologist helping others.  Samantha went off the grid and no one has heard from her in years.  Quincy seems to be doing the best.  She has a lovely apartment in New York, a fiance who is supportive and loving and a baking blog which allows her to turn her therapeutic baking into a career. 

Then it happens.  Quincy gets a call from the policeman who saved her all those years ago and who has remained a constant force in her life.  Coop is the man who has always been there for her, always available by phone or text and coming for visits to make sure Quincy is okay.  He calls to give her the news.  Lisa is dead, a suicide.  As Quincy is struggling to deal with the news, she gets an even bigger shock.  Someone stops her outside her apartment and it is Samantha or Sam as she likes to be called.

Quincy invites her in.  Sam as she likes to be called, is rough around the edges.  She dresses to shock and it's clear she has been living off the radar.  She has heard the news and as the only person alive who really understands what Quincy's life is, she has come to join forces.  Quincy's fiance is skeptical and dismayed, sure Sam is there to try to get money from them or some other sketchy plan.  But when Quincy and Sam find out that Lisa's suicide is instead murder, nothing can make them separate.

As the days go by, Quincy finds that the roughness she sees in Sam is deeply ingrained.  Sam is defiant and reckless, tempting men to see her as a victim so that she can turn around and work out her anger on them.  Quincy is appalled and intrigued in equal measure.  But none of Sam's stories seem to check out and soon Quincy is scared of her and not sure how to disentangle herself or what Sam might do next.  Has she traded one nightmare for another?

This was a debut novel for Riley Sager, a former journalist and editor.  It burst onto the scene in 2017 and in 2018 was the winner of the International Thriller Award for Best Novel.  The story is written at a pace that moves the reader along with it, never quite sure what the next page will bring.  The truth is slowly revealed as the reader discovers it along with Quincy.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Mercy Seat by Rilla Askew

The Lodi brothers move from Kentucky to Oklahoma as pioneers.  Although they are brothers, they could not be more different.  John, the younger, is a skilled blacksmith and gun maker, quiet and focused on his work and family.  Fayette, or Fate, is a big talker, a man who always has a ton of ideas on how he can get rich regardless of the legality of the ideas.  The journey is not their desire.  Instead, the Lodi families are moving out ahead of the law after Fate convinced John to make some guns that violated patent law. 

The families start out together but become separated on the trail.  Each family has multiple children.  Mattie is John's oldest, a daughter who chooses to go by a man's name and whose only desire is to be as much like her father as she can be.  The mother is a frail woman who grieves everyday for her Kentucky home with its refinement.  Fate has no patience with her and makes fun of her constantly.  When she gets ill and can't go on, Fate moves his family onward without John's family.  John's wife dies on the trail, leaving five children to be raised.

When the two Lodi families are reunited in Oklahoma, it is not with joy.  John and the children come with scarlet fever, and Fate's wife, Jessie, resents them from the start, worrying about her own family coming down sick as well.  The families never become close.  John finds work as a blacksmith, much to Fate's dismay.  Fate has plenty of ideas of things John could do with him but John isn't interested.  Not in Fate's ideas nor it seems in his own children.  They are left to raise themselves and do so with varying success.  The tension between the brothers increases until it leads to a tragedy, an 1800's version of Cain and Abel.

Rilla Askew, an Oklahoman herself, has written a compelling history of this time and place.  The characters are unforgettable and the story is bleak as was the fates of those who moved westward to find a better life, but who often only found pain and misery.  Modern parents will not relate to the way that children were expected to be miniature adults from a young age and how little time or effort was expended on raising them to be happy and successful.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare

Life has not been kind to Adunni.  Her only dream is to be able to finish her schooling so that she can become a teacher herself.  But when her mother dies, although her father promised her mother that he wouldn't interfere with Adunni's education, promises are cheap.  He doesn't want to work but prefers to lay around drinking.  Soon, he has a plan to marry Adunni off at fourteen as the sixty year old man who wants her is willing to pay a good bride price for her.

Adunni is the third wife in the old man's compound and as such, her only role is to do what wives one and two tell her to and to spend nights in the old man's room where he does whatever he wants.  When tragedy strikes the household, Adunni runs off, begging help from anyone she knows.

But help is not available for a naive girl.  She is instead sold to a wealthy family in Nigeria where she works from dawn to late at night, cleaning and being a personal attendant to the older wealthy woman who runs the house.  The woman is married but her husband has a roving eye and hands.  The woman not only demands long hours and high standards from Adunni, she also beats her almost every day.

But there are a few good things even now in Adunni's life.  The cook finds a scholarship that is targeted for housemaids that could get Adunni out of her life of servitude.  There is a woman down the street who is struck by Adunni's cheerfulness in the midst of her bleak life and who does what she can to help.  Will these good people help Adunni escape her current life and find her voice?

Abi Dare has written a debut novel that is uplifting and interesting.  She manages to highlight the obstacles that many young women around the world are faced with and the difficulties they face in trying to pull themselves up from ignorance and poverty.  Adunni is a lovely character and the reader won't be able to stop cheering for her in the situations she finds herself in.  This book is recommended for readers of women's fiction.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly

As this novel opens, Harry Bosch is out of work.  Two weeks ago, he had gotten into a scuffle with his supervisor, Lt. Pounds, and it ended with Harry putting him through a glass window.  Now Harry is on suspension and can't come back until he is cleared by a psychiatrist.  Harry is not pleased to be visiting Dr. Carmen Hinojos and he certainly isn't sure if he can trust her.  But he has to go and what else does he have to do?

Except Harry knows what else he has to do.  Now is the perfect time to investigate the case he has put off for years, the one case that matters to him more than any other.  When he was eleven, his mother, Marjorie, had been murdered, leaving Bosch to a series of foster homes and institutions until he was able to escape by joining the military.  Her case was never solved.  Maybe it's time for Harry to look into it.

When he gets the files, he is infuriated all over again.  It's clear the case was just kicked down the road and never really investigated at all.  His mother was a prostitute and apparently, the murder of a prostitute wasn't high on the list.  But, it's high on Harry's list and he is determined to get to the bottom of it all.

As he investigates, he starts to see some shadowy connections.  His mother appeared to have been connected to some influential men, men in the district attorney's office and wealthy men with lots of pull.  Is that why her case stalled out?  As Harry tracks down the policemen who handled the case, he gets more evidence and in a side note, meets a woman he feels instantly attracted to and has a real connection with, something that doesn't happen often for him.  Everyone tells him that he should let it go but he can't.  Can he find the truth after all these years?

This is the fourth book in the Harry Bosch series and it gives the reader a lot of the background that makes up Harry's outlook on life and what is important to him.  There are plenty of twists and turns and the reader feels closer to Harry as he delves into his personal history.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Ten Minutes And 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Tequila Leila is dead, murdered in her job as a prostitute in Istanbul.  But her brain doesn't die when her body does.  It stays alive for ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds, long enough for Layla to look back over her life for one last time.  Her life was shaped by the culture she grew up in and it's insistence on women as second class citizens.  She remembers her childhood and how happy it was until the dark family secret that ruined her life.  More than anything, she remembers her five friends and how they became her family instead.

There is Sinan, her childhood friend.  He was her only friend growing up and his joy was found in seeing her joy.  Once Leila ran away from home, he made it a point to also end up in Istanbul where he searched until he found her.  Nalan was the next friend she made.  When she first met Nalan, it was as a male but she later got to know him after he had changed and become a woman.  Nalan had to work the streets as the bordellos wouldn't accept transgender women.  Jameelah was an African immigrant, antoher prostitute who Leila met in the common sweeps of prostitutes.  Humeyra had also run away from a stifling family and was now a rock singer in the smoke filled bars and had even done a few pornography films to make a living without family.  Finally, Zaynab was a dwarf, a cleaner in the bordello who formed a fast friendship with Leila.

Together, these six outcasts formed a family that sustained them and provided love and friendship.  Now that Leila is dead, it will fall to them to make sure she rests in peace.  They plan to bury her beside her beloved D'Alia, a revolutionary who fell in love with Leila and with whom she shared a brief, joyous marriage. 

This book was a Booker nominee in 2019 and it is clear why.  The characters are colorful and clearly drawn.  The message is the oppression that the Muslim religion imposes on women and those who are different and the few choices available to those who are different.  Yet, with all the horrid things in her life, Leila manages to make a joyous life and be kind to those around her.  The style reminded me of  Salman Rushdie, one of my favorite authors.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Hidden Things by Jamie Mason

Returning home from school, Carly Liddell is followed by a man who pushes into her home as she enters.  Carly, who is just fourteen, reacts by instinct and her repulsion and beating of the man is captured on the home video.  The police are impressed and post the video and before you know it, it goes viral and Carly is everybody's heroine.

Everybody except her stepdad, that is.  John's biggest secret is also revealed in the video.  Four years ago, he tried to sell a picture.  Not any picture but a true Old Master, stolen years before from a museum and somehow acquired by his father.  John found it in his father's possessions when he died and knew just enough to know it was valuable.

But the sale went wrong and people died.  Now the video has shown the picture hanging in Carly's foyer and lots of people are interested.  The man who arranged the purchase for his employers and whose friends were killed.  The woman who was John's partner and who he left for dead and who has been living under the radar for four long years, not even able to let her family know she was alive.  The man who accidentally fired the gun and who will never let John alone.

Now all of these people know exactly where John is and where the picture is.  John's marriage of convenience can't shield him any more.  Can he manage to pull off the sale and escape for good this time?  Will the purchasers finally get their revenge?  Will Carly and her mother find out about John's background?

Jamie Mason has written a thrilling adventure that is full of twists and turns.  Her forte is writing characters that the reader can believe in and whose actions, though misguided, seem realistic as a choice.  As the story unfolds from these multiple viewpoints, the reader will find their sympathies changing from moment to moment and eagerly await the outcome.  This book is recommended for thriller and mystery readers.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter

When doctor Sara Linton goes to lunch that day, she never expected her life to change so dramatically.  When she goes into the restroom, she finds a victim; a local chemist who is blind has been raped and slashed and left for dead.  She is still alive but dies in Sara's arms as she tries to help. 

Chief of police Jeffrey Tolliver is faced with a sadistic killer.  He is also Sara's ex-husband and there is plenty of tension left between them.  Another conflict is that the victim is the twin sister of his top detective, Lena Adams.  Lena already has issues being the only female in the small Georgia town police force and she is determined to be on the case although everyone knows it shouldn't be allowed.

Clues are scarce and before Jeffrey makes much progress, the killer strikes again.  This time he kidnaps a student from the local college and when she is found, two things become apparent.  The killer is working through a religious framework and his main target is Sara.  Sara has a background that already has a criminal in it.  She was attacked in Atlanta years ago during her residency.  Is this the same man or is someone new?

This is the first novel in the Grant County series and an early book in the successful career of Karin Slaughter.  The violence is graphic and the reader needs to be prepared for it.  Along with the horrific crimes, there is tension between Sara and Jeffrey as they work on what their relationship should be post divorce.  There are plenty of twists and turns and the reader will finish with a real appreciation for why Karin Slaughter is such a powerful force in the mystery genre.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag

Not all gods are merciful.  Grimm is not.  He has thousands of children and amuses himself by pitting them against each other in an intricate game that ends in death.  The male children are soldiers and to stay alive must kill a female Grimm and take her essence.  The female children are shown a wonderful playworld called Everwhere.  There they start to learn about the powers given them.  But they are banned from visiting at age thirteen and must live here on Earth.  At age eighteen, they return to Everwhere for a battle in which it is kill or be killed and where they must make a decision to their father; good or evil.  The males are pretty much loners.  The females who share a birthday are sisters and meet each other in Everwhere.

The eighteenth birthday is coming up in a month for a set of  four Grimm sisters.  Each controls an element of the world, although their powers are not evident to them.  Goldie is on the earth but in her regular life she is a hotel maid trying to make enough money to support herself and her younger brother.  Bea is a creature of the air and the only sister who knows anything about the upcoming battle as her hated mother has told her all about it and makes it clear she is to choose evil.  Liyana's power is over water; in her earthly life she is a swimmer and wealthy although her aunt has just informed her that all their money has been lost.  Scarlet is a creature of fire.  She tries to keep her grandmother's bakery going and her grandmother happy as she battles a fading memory and depends on Scarlet for everything. 

As the thirty days go by, the sisters start to remember about their childhood visits to Everwhere.  They all find love relationships which in some cases strength them and in others lead to betrayals.  More importantly, they start to rediscover their powers and to find each other; first in dreams then in real life.  Can they ready themselves for the ultimate battle they must soon fight?

Meena van Pragg has created a modern day fairy tale that empowers female readers to reach for their dreams and for happiness.  Each of the four sisters is deftly captured and the reader is drawn into their lives and loves.  Different readers will relate more to different sisters and that is a reflection of the issues in their own lives and where they dare to be powerful.  This book is recommended for readers of fantasy.