Friday, April 30, 2021

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi


The story begins at a highly competitive high school for the performing arts.  The place is New York, the time the early 1980's.  Mr. Kingsley is the lodestone around which the drama department revolves.  He uses his talent and access to force the students in his program to confront themselves and their fears, to trust each other and their talent.  Two students stand out.  David is handsome and rich but hesitant.  Sarah is an outsider, her contributions to the plays wardrobe mistress rather than onstage performer.  The two share a summer romance and then spend the next two years in a love-hate relationship that those around them recognize but who no one knows how to move forward.  

Then the book shifts.  We see the same events from the viewpoint of Karen twenty years later.  She was another student who stayed behind the scenes.  After a successful career as an executive assistant and organizer, she returns home to the city where they all grew up.  David is back in town also, working now as a producer and director.  Sarah has become an author and has a hugely successful book out.  When Karen reconnects with Sarah at an author signing in Los Angeles, their reminiscences lead to Sarah agreeing to come to the debut of David's next play, which Karen is starring in.  What happens there is surprising yet in some ways long overdue.

This novel won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction.  It explores the relationships between teenagers with their overheated dramatic friendships.  It also delves into the trust that teachers demand from their students and how easily that trust can be abused.  Although none of the characters are particularly easy to relate with, their stories are fascinating and show the power of friendship and betrayal.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Widow's Web by Gene Lyons


The story doesn't ring true to the police called to investigate.  A man lies dead in his bedroom, a gunshot to the head causing his death.  His wife, Mary Lee Orsini, says that she found the door locked and when she unlocked it and went in, found her husband dead.  She says that she and her eleven year old daughter had been in the house the night before and heard nothing and that she slept in her daughter's room as she was feeling ill. Once it becomes clear that this is not a suicide, she has lots of possible perpetrators for the police to investigate, including her brother.

Orsini is a master manipulator.  She is compelling and people are fascinated with her, even if her stories don't hold up.  She claims a college degree although she didn't finish high school.  She claims connections with prestigious people and insists that powerful criminals have it out for her.  Her attorney, Bill McArthur, isn't sure his client is innocent but he is sure the police don't have enough evidence to take the case to trial.  When a grand jury refuses to return an indictment, Orsini is set free and McArthur believes his job is done.

But it isn't.  Orsini attempts for months to pull him into her web of lies and fabrications.  She has several boyfriends during this time and uses them to further the plans and plots constantly spinning in her mind.  Things take a more deadly turn when McArthur's wife is found shot and dead in his house.  Orsini, who by now is upset that McArthur never took her up on her flirtations, does what she can to cast suspicion on him.  Before it's all over, a sheriff with political aspirations becomes part of Orsini's web and McArthur is hounded in and out of court for months.  

This case took place in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Readers will be as fascinated with Mary Lee Orsini and her manipulations as those caught up in the case were.  She is an example of a narcissistic sociopath and her need to be in the spotlight cost the lives of two innocent people.  This book is recommended for readers of true crime.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly


L.A. defense lawyer Mickey Haller is back in business.  After a case went terrible wrong, he has spent two years away from the law, part of that in a rehab center after becoming addicted to pain pills from an injury received on his last case.  Now he is ready to ease his way back into his former life.

But his plans to ease back in don't work out.  Haller is surprised to find out that far from having to look for clients, he has just been handed over thirty of them.  He had an agreement with another lawyer, Jerry Vincent. The two men served as backup for each other although they aren't close personally.  When Vincent is found murdered, all of his clients become Haller's.

The big case is a murder case about to start.  Walter Elliott is a famous and wealthy Hollywood executive, a movie producer with a string of successful movies.  Elliott has been charged with the murders of his wife and her lover at his beach mansion a few months earlier.  No murder weapon was found but Elliott found the bodies and called the police and there is gun powder residue on his hands.  He is charged and Vincent was his defense attorney.

Now Haller must get ready for a high stakes murder trial in a short turnaround.  Elliott is adamant that the trial go on as scheduled; he is determined to prove his innocence as quickly as possible and get back to his former life.  As Haller investigates the crime, he meets a police detective, Bosch, who is the officer in charge of Vincent's murder.  The two men form a partnership of sorts although they aren't very impressed with each other.  Haller is much more focused on the murder trial which starts to feel as if there is much going on behind the scenes that he isn't privy to.  Can he successfully try the case?

This is the second book in the Mickey Haller series.  Mickey is the son of a famous defense attorney, good at the law and not very good at relationships.  He has several ex-wives, a daughter he doesn't see as often as he'd like and few friendships.  The case has twists and turns and the ending is one that the reader won't see coming.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Oxford Book Of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates


This large anthology (over 800 pages) brings together stories written by American authors from the earliest colonial times to the present.  Early authors include Washington Irving, William Austin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville and Samuel Clemens.  The most recently published authors include Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pinckney Benedict, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Ha Jin, Jeffrey Ford, Louise Erdrich, Amy Hempel, T.C. Boyle, Stephen King, Tim O'Brien, Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford.

As expected with such a wide range of decades, a diversity of opinions and topics are covered.  There are stories about being an immigrant, a story about the economic truths of various times, about families, about making a living and the role of family in a well-lived life, and other topics.  The stories include those that are surprising, those meant to rally readers to a specific point of view or a plan of action against some outrage and those meant merely to entertain.  There are many other authors between the early writers and the most recent one, authors whose names are familiar to readers everywhere.  Some of these include Henry James, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Donald Barthelme, and Kate Chopin.  

This anthology was edited by Joyce Carol Oates whose name is synonymous with quality writing and one of her stories is included in the anthology.  She has done a wonderful job of including stories with diverse viewpoints which are inclusive of the entire range of men and women who have written as Americans.  I am fairly well-read yet had read few of these stories and each discovery of another new gem was a delight.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Booksie's Shelves, April 24, 2021


Spring is here and with it hope of renewal.  My husband and I are both fully vaccinated and my daughter has her first appointment this week.  We're cautiously starting to socialize a bit.  We visited my son, fiancee and the grandkids for the first time in fifteen months last week then went on to a week at the beach.  It was good to get out and about a bit after being isolated for so many months.  I've still been doing a lot of reading and still reading mostly my own books as I work on downsizing my library.  But of course, some books are still being bought and sent to me by publishers.  Here's what's come through the door:

  1. Broken, Jenny Lawson, humor, sent by publisher
  2. The Barbarian Nurseries, Hector Tobar, literary fiction, purchased
  3. Laurentian Divide, Sarah Stonich, literary fiction, purchased
  4. Feral Creatures, Kira Jane Buxton, fantasy, sent by publisher
  5. Fleishman Is In Trouble, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, literary fiction, purchased
  6. Surviving Savannah, Patti Callahan, historical fiction, sent by publisher
  7. Vera, Carol Edgarian, historical fiction, sent by publisher
  8. Princes Of The Renaissance, Mary Hollingsworth, nonfiction, sent by publisher
Here's the ebooks I've purchased:

  1. Witchmarked, Aaron Schneider, fantasy
  2. The Birdwatcher, William Shaw, mystery
  3. A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, Hank Green, fantasy
  4. Homesick For Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh, anthology
  5. I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O'Farrell, memoir
  6. The Other Americans, Laila Lalami, literary fiction
  7. A Deadly Influence, Mike Omar, mystery
  8. To Kill And Kill Again, John Coston, true crime
  9. At The Edge Of The Haight, Katherine Seligman, literary fiction
  10. The Story Of A New Name, Elena Ferrante, literary fiction
  11. Lies Sleeping, Ben Aaronvitch, fantasy
  12. The Last Anniversary, Liane Moriarty, thriller
  13. The Invitation, Lucy Foley, thriller
  14. Monster, Steve Johnson, true crime
  15. Gods Of Howl Mountain, Taylor Brown, literary fiction
  16. The Fifth Elephant, Terry Prachett, fantasy
  17. The Dividing, Devin Downing, mystery
  18. That Night, C.J. Grayson, mystery
  19. Providence, Max Barry, science fiction
  20. The Yellow House, Sarah Broom, memoir
  21. A Single Swallow, Zhang Ling, literary fiction
  22. The King Of Warsaw, Szczepan Twardoch, literary fiction
  23. The Strange Journey Of Alice Pendelbury, Marc Levy, literary fiction
  24. You, Me And The Colors Of Life, Noa Walker, literary fiction
  25. Return To The Enchanted Island, Johary Ravalson, literary fiction
  26. Butcher, Baker, Walter Gilmour, true crime
  27. If We Were Villains, M.L. Rio, literary fiction
  28. The Song Of The First Blade, T.C. Edge, fantasy
Here's what I'm reading:
  1. The Wife Upstairs, Rachel Hawkins, mystery
  2. Widow's Web, Gene Lyons, true crime
  3. The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater, fantasy
  4. Trust Exercise, Susan Choi, literary fiction
  5. Blood Orange, Harriet Tyce, thriller
  6. The Brass Verdict, Michael Connelly, legal mystery
Happy Reading!

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins


Jane is starting all over again.  Raised in the foster system, she was set loose on the world at eighteen with no help.  Since then she has drifted, working minimum wage jobs and moving from place to place.  This place is Birmingham, Alabama, and Jane is working as a dogwalker to rich people's dogs.  The dogs are fine but Jane is not as impressed with the people.  The women are smug and condescending to her and the men watch her with lustful eyes.  She is starting to think about moving on again when she meets Eddie.

Eddie and Trip are the ones the women love to gossip about.  Their wives were lost a year ago, presumed dead.  Eddie was married to Bea, the woman who created a multimillion dollar company selling style to Southern women and those who aspired to the Southern life.  Trip was married to her best friend, the two women having been friends since their school days.  One weekend the women went to Bea's lake house and out on the boat at night.  Something happened and they were never seen again.

Eddie Rochester is gorgeous, rich and charming, the kind of man who never notices plain Jane. But Eddie does notice her and before she knows it, is pursuing her.  Soon Jane has moved in and the women who snubbed her now cluster around her.  All is wonderful except for the questions Jane can't help but wonder about.  What really happened that night?  Were Eddie and Bea's marriage the fairy tale everyone thinks?  And what is that noise she keeps hearing?

I listened to this novel.  There were three narrators, one for Jane, one for Bea and one for Eddie.  Each of them added depth and interest to the story although I liked the Jane narrator the best and she was the one featured the most.  

This is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre and those who have read it will pick up lots of references to that wonderful novel.  But those who have never read it will enjoy this title as a modern day thriller with lots of twists and turns that redefine the story from page to page.  No one is exactly as they appear and some are very far from their public persona.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Book Of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall


Willow Havens has one job in her ten year old life.  She has to protect her mother, Polly.   Polly, who fights with all the neighbors.  Polly who had Willow in her early fifties right after her father died.  Polly who loves to garden and hates the squirrels with a passion.  Somehow, Willow has to keep her alive.

Sure, Polly is embarrassing when she comes to school and tells the teachers what to do in no uncertain terms.  Willow has two older siblings but they are grown and gone so everything is up to Willow.  That job is harder because Polly won't talk about herself ever.  She won't talk about where she came from, who she knew there or why she left never to return.  

The job becomes overwhelming when Polly gets cancer or as she and Willow refer to it, the Bear.  Polly fights the Bear but chemo and surgery don't seem to be getting the job done.  So Willow reaches back into Polly's secret background and tries to get her a miracle cure.  The only catch is that Polly will have to go back home where she doesn't want to be and see a faith healer in whom she has no faith.

Kathy Hepinstall has written an engaging novel that explores the responsibilities an only child feels to keep their parents safe.  Although Willow isn't an only child, that is her experience as her siblings have gone on to adult lives leaving Willow alone with Polly.  Polly is a unique character but then again so is Willow.  This is a charming novel that will leave the reader laughing, crying and hoping for a miracle.  This book is recommended for readers of women's and literary fiction.

Monday, April 19, 2021

I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O'Farrell


In this memoir, novelist Maggie O'Farrell tells the story of times that she has faced death in her life.  She was never an easy child; always determined to have her own way and desperate to find a way out of her small town life.  She travels the world, often alone, and with that courage and determination to lead an adventurous life comes danger at times.

The book opens with O'Farrell's encounter with a man on a lonely path.  She was working in a hotel and had gone for a walk on her break.  She noticed the man at the start of her walk and nodded hello.  Then later, suddenly, there he was, standing in her path and denying her the ability to move forward.  He put a strap around her neck and his intent seemed clear but she was able to talk to him and get away.  Later another girl was killed in the same location and the same method.

This is one of the more dramatic episodes she has encountered but hardly the last.  She writes of almost being run over by cars, of being accosted in a robbery, of health issues that almost claimed a life.  She got a virus in childhood that left her paralyzed for months with doctors saying she would never walk again.  She had miscarriages that robbed her of longed for children.  Her daughter has the kind of allergies that can take her from her family in a moment if she is even exposed to food that was cooked in a pan or with utensils that were earlier used to cook food she is allergic to. 

From all these disasters, O'Farrell emerges determined to continue to live life on her own terms and unafraid although cognizant of life's dangers.  Her writing makes it clear that what she values most in life are her family, her husband and children.  She is compelled to write and the world is a better place for that.  I finished this book in awe of her determination and courage.  This book is recommended for readers of memoirs and those interested in authors and their lives.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The Mountains Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen

 This novel tells the story of a Vietnamese family across decades from the 1920's until the present.  It is shown through the prism of national events, from the time of the French occupation through the famine and time of starvation, through the civil war that torn the country apart for years and the land reform that tore people from their lands and sent them fleeing as refugees.

The main character is Tran Dieu Lan.  She is married with six children when her world falls apart.  Her husband goes off to fight the war.  She gives up her job as a teacher in order to become a trader of food and goods, an occupation frowned on by the government.  When land reform comes and each village is given a quota of land owners to execute, she manages to flee her village and take off with her children to walk the many miles to Hanoi.  On that trip, which takes months, she has to leave her children behind with various organizations and individuals that claim they will take care of each child.  She makes it to Hanoi and eventually manages to set up a household there with her youngest child and go back to reclaim her children.

The story picks up through the voice of her granddaughter, Hu'o'ng.  She is left with her grandmother when her parents, both doctors, are sent off to fight in the war. She sees the discord and bitterness her family is left with as various sides are chosen and brother fights brother.  Some of her relatives return, some never do.  Some come back unharmed physically while others are maimed or changed forever mentally.  

This is an intricate work written in lyrical language.  The author is a poet and that ability shines through in the narration.  She portrays the people and viewpoints succinctly while pointing out the loyalty that family should engender.  I listened to this book and the narrator was a welcome addition. The narration allowed me to hear the correct pronunciation of many of the words and names I would have mispronounced otherwise.  This book is recommended for historical fiction readers.  

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Bones And Silence by Reginald Hill


When Inspector Andrew Dalziel witnesses a murder from his kitchen window of course the police believe him.  Except that the two men left in the room give a different story and it might have been an accident.  Except that Dalziel was drunk after a night out.  The victim was a woman; the wife of one of the men and the lover of the other.  

Dalziel's second in command, Peter Pascoe, has just returned from his time off after being seriously injured on the job.  He's not sure if Dalziel knows exactly what he saw but follows his lead investigating the case.  Plus he's been handed the job of investigating a series of anonymous letters that Dalziel has been receiving.  These are letters from someone, probably a woman, who states that she is planning to commit suicide and has picked Dalziel to tell because he won't bother to find her.

Add to this that Pascoe and his wife, Ellie, have been complicit in the choice of Dalziel to play God in the upcoming theatrics put on by the city and a mesmerizing director who convinces him to play the part.  Then bodies start showing up one by one and soon there's more work around than any force can be expected to cover successfully.

This is the eleventh book in the Dalziel/Pascoe series.  Fans of the series will delight in the interplay between the various police characters.  As always with Hill's novels, the plot is tight and the twists and turns surprising.  Dalziel is an easy character to write off but as always he proves that he sees more than anyone else and knows the criminal mind better than those around him.  Told with Hill's signature wit and humorous outlook, this book is recommended for readers of mystery novels.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan


Detective Cormac Reilly gets a call one night he should never have gotten.  His girlfriend, Emma, has come upon the body of a girl in a car park as she left the lab where she worked.  Cormac goes to the scene and is assigned the case although normally he would never be given the case due to his relationship to the witness.  There is no identification on the woman except for a lab access card.  That card belongs to Carline Darcy who also works at the lab.  In fact, Darcy is the granddaughter of the lab's founder and owner.

But it turns out that the woman is not Carline Darcy.   It is instead a woman who attended Galway University with Carline named Della.  According to Carline, she barely knew Della but Cormac believes there is more of a relationship than she is admitting to.  Della had a once in a generation brain and shockingly, for a poor girl from a poor family, an apartment full of cash.  As the investigation progresses, the case is taken from Cormac and given to another detective.  Against orders, he keeps up with what is going on and Emma's involvement gets deeper and deeper to the point where she moves from a witness to a suspect.  Will the relationship survive?

This is the second book in the Cormac Reilly series.  Cormac gave up his career as a lead detective in another city to follow his love, Emma, to Galway when she is offered the position at Darcy Laboratories that can make her career.  This police procedural is different as it explores not just the case but the relationship between Cormac and Emma, and whether a love can survive suspicion.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Killer Triggers by Joe Kenda


In this compilation of true crime stories, Joe Kenda relates tales from his long career in law enforcement.  Kenda was a homicide detective and commander of the major crimes unit in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  For each case, he starts with the trigger that he believes led to the murder then describes the case and how he and his team went about solving it.

Common triggers are money, sexual rage, mental disease, rage and revenge.  Some of the cases include a serial killer, a teenager who killed his mother while pretending to be a religious choirboy, and a grocery store murder.  He relates the tale of a man killed while drinking by one of his buddies for almost no benefit yet that case took years to solve.  He relates one of his first cases, a grocery store murder that shocked and saddened him. He talks of a housing complex full of gangs, drug dealers, prostitutes and their pimps where murder and robbery was a daily fact of life.  Throughout, his focus is catching the criminal and creating a case that would stand up in court.

I listened to this book and the narrator was Joe Kenda.  His dry wit and matter of fact narration was perfect for this book. As he relates each crime, the listener can feel how personally Kenda took each case and how determined he and his detectives were to solve the case. I can't imagine how anyone else could have done as good a job as Kenda himself does narrating the case.

Joe Kenda is known to most as the star of the TV series, Homicide Hunter, Lt. Joe Kenda on the Investigation Channel.  His team had a 92% solve rate which is almost unheard of in law enforcement.  After that show ended, his new show is airing on Discovery+ and is called American Detective.  Those readers interested in true crime will enjoy this book and how each crime is described along with how it was solved.  This book is recommended for readers of true crime.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert


Alma Whittaker is a lucky woman.  Born in 1800 to a wealthy father who worked his way from poverty to a thriving pharmaceutical and import/export business and to a Dutch mother who valued hard work and intelligence, Alma experienced a charmed childhood.  She was free to roam the large estate, studying whatever caught her fancy and was raised to interact with the finest minds from all over the world at the dinner table.  She grew to be a botanist of the first order herself.

But she also was an unlucky woman.  Standing over six feet tall and broad as a mountain, she possessed few if any womanly charms.  Her adopted sister Prudence was extremely beautiful which didn't help Alma's chances.  Alma yearned for love and marriage but found no men interested in her.  Finally in her fifties, she found a man who loved her but even though they married, the marriage lasted for only a short time.  These personal trials encouraged Alma to, in her later years, travel the world to find the answers that made sense to her.  She ended up developing the theory of evolution at around the same time that Darwin and Wallace did so, totally independent of their work.

This was an interesting novel and Alma a fascinating character.  She found succor and success in the life of the mind but endlessly longed for the human connection that would make her life complete.  The writing is descriptive and the reader can easily imagine themselves in the various locations. It is intriguing to learn about a woman who refuses to put her intelligence and curiosity in hiding and that accomplishes great intellectual tasks at a time when women were considered unable to do so.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Triptych by Karin Slaughter


When John Shelley was sixteen, all he could think about was getting his first kiss from his teenage crush.  He's thrilled when she agrees to come to his cousin's party and he can't believe his luck when he gets to take her home and they go to her bedroom.  But the thrill is gone when he wakes up.  All he remembers is passing out after doing some of the drugs his cousin gave him.  But he wakes up to the dead, mutilated body of the girl he was with.  John was arrested and due to the gruesome nature of the crime, he was tried as an adult and given a life sentence.

Now, twenty years later, John has been paroled.  He is doing the best he can to move on but it's not easy being a parole, especially one from a sex crime.  He works at a car wash at minimum wage and lives in a horrible rooming house for which he is overcharged.  His father wrote him off when he was arrested and his sister doesn't want to hear from him.  Even worse, someone has started killing women in the same way that the first murder occurred and John is pretty sure the police will be coming for him again.

The murders are the responsibility of the Atlanta Police Department.  The case is assigned to Michael but he is appalled when his boss calls in the state police for help.  They send an agent named Will Trent, a tall, gangly man who seems to know a lot but who doesn't follow the rules.  The two men also bring in Angie, a cop working Vice who knows the most recent victim.  She also has history with both men.  She worked with Michael in Vice but grew up as a friend of Will's.  Together the group tries to find the killer before he strikes again.  Will they be in time?

This is the first novel in the Will Trent series.  Will is a flawed character with significant learning disabilities that he has spent his life hiding and a background of horrific childhood abuse.  He and Angie can't live without each other or with each other; their relationship is a cauldron of churning emotions.  There are twists and turns, some expected and some coming out of nowhere to surprise the reader.  This book is recommended for readers of mystery novels.