Friday, August 10, 2018

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

The House Swap is another entry into the psychological relationship thriller. It does, however, have quite a different twist on it; one where you just don't see it coming for quite some time. 

Told in two storylines: 2013 and 2015, you would think not much could happen in a few years. You'd be wrong, especially when it comes to the relationship between Caroline and Francis, a couple who's marriage has been slowly disintegrating due to Francis' addiction to pills, and the resulting affair Caroline has with a coworker. A mess, right? It's a bit sad to see what was once a solid relationship erode over time, and neither participant seems to know how to fix it. 

Move to 2015, and Caroline and Francis are house swapping for a week to get away and continue to repair their relationship. The house is oddly bare of any personal touches; it's neat as a pin and pretty much empty of anything-more like a hotel. Making arrangements only through email, the owner of this home is staying at Caroline and Francis' home for a week. Heck, people do this all the time!

Except this one is weird. Caroline's affair may be long over, but she's still haunted by it, and odd little things around the house jolt her into remembering key scenes from two years before. Of course she can't tell Francis, since their relationship is still fragile and this whole getaway was meant for them to spend time together. Is she just projecting, or are these little things: certain flowers in the bathroom; a photo of a park that Caroline visited during her affair--are these things a deliberate poke at Caroline? Amber, a woman across the street--seems oddly determined to get to know Caroline. Is her ex-lover the one she's swapped houses with?! Is he trying to drive her mad?

There's not a huge amount of action here; it's definitely one where a lot is spent on feeling, reflecting, and remembering. Caroline is a bit of a tortured soul, and you have no idea the depths until much farther along in the plot. The big reveal is something you won't see coming at all, because there's just not any way you could--a deliberate twist out of nowhere. Let's just say Caroline's instincts that something's not right, and someone is deliberately tormenting her, are spot on. But who you think it might be--well, that's the big surprise. Francis' thoughts are also a big part of the novel, as we see addiction from his point of view; the hopelessness, the aching, the need to just take the pill and make everything okay. We see how easy it is to slip down that slide, and how it can wreck a family. 

The cover of this novel has a quote from Lee Child, saying this is a "domestic noir".  Yes it is. It's a bit dark, and all you can do is hang on and hope Caroline and Francis come out the other side still together and with a better understanding of their relationship. It's a pretty good thriller! Wow, the depth and work the person bent on revenge goes to is pretty thorough.  

Rating:  4/6 for a very different thriller that slowly unravels and gives you tidbits along the way, keeping you guessing and biting your nails. 

Thank you to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for an advanced copy of this novel!

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Dry by Jane Harper

Wow. Just wow. This was a really great read--I zoomed through it in a few days when I realized I had to return it to a friend at our book club tonight. I finished it a mere 30 minutes before we were meeting, and I couldn't wait to talk about it to my friends. Seriously--this was the book I stayed up late to read, woke up early to get more pages in; read during my lunch hour at work. 

A quick plot recap: Aaron Falk, a federal agent in Australia, returns to his hometown of Kiewarra for the funeral of his childhood friend  Luke, his wife Karen, and their little boy Billy. Everyone believes it was a murder-suicide caused by the unrelenting 2 year drought, money problems, and the slow madness of the heat. Why would Luke kill his family so savagely, then turn the gun on himself?  The only survivor: Charlotte, Luke's baby girl. 

Aaron means to leave quickly, since he and his father were run out of town 20 years before after Aaron's friend Ellie was found drowned in a nearby creek, rocks weighing her body down. All eyes turned to Aaron, who was innocent of any wrongdoing, but Ellie's abusive, drunken father made sure someone was to blame. But Luke's father tells Aaron "I know you lied."  Whaaaat???!! Well geez, now Aaron has to stay and figure out just what that means. 

Aaron is joined by local police office Raco in doing some off-duty investigating of the Hadler family's murders, and little by little, they find things that just don't add up. Meanwhile, Aaron's lingering in Kiewarra is stirring up some anger, old feelings, and a lot of trouble. Can he stay long enough to find out what happened to Luke and his family that horrible afternoon?

Well. Jane Harper can write a hell of a story. The dust, grit, heat, parched throats; clothes sticking to skin--she's got that nailed down. It's guaranteed to give you a short fuse just reading about it. The atmosphere of simmering rage in Kiewarra is evident everywhere, and all it takes is one small flame to send it out of control. The repeated small mentions of the fire hazard signs pointing to high danger; the crunch of dirt; the continual desire for a glass of water or a cold beer; it's all part of a background that settles you deep into the story, and makes you feel acutely aware of the edge there is to the cast of characters. I kept thinking, "Tread lightly Aaron!" I felt like he was going to get jumped at any time.  I won't tell you what people do to try to drive him out of town, but geez, these people can really take it up a notch. 

There's so much more to this thriller, but I'm mentally wiped out from the tale. Trust me. Pick it up and read it. I immediately checked out the second in the series, Force of Nature. I need to take a day or two or five to get over The Dry before I start on it. Jane Harper is working on her third novel-yay!

I won't tell you anymore. Discover the brilliance of The Dry for yourself. 

Rating:  6/6 for an excellent thriller that didn't let me down. Such good writing, and a story that pulled me along until I was left reeling at the end. An excellent book club choice, with a reader's guide at the end to help facilitate discussion. Yes, it deserves a solid 6/6!

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio book. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Patchwork Bride by Sandra Dallas

It's a lucky year for me when Sandra Dallas has two novels come out within months of each other. I reviewed Hardscrabble in May, and now it's time to review The Patchwork Bride.

What I love so much about Sandra's novels are the female characters. They are all strong, capable women who face hardships and tragedy straight on. They work hard, love well, and see the joy in the quiet moments of life. They always have stories to tell. 

This novel was no different. Ellen is an elderly  woman living and working on the ranch she shares with her husband, Ben. He's a cowboy through and through, but he's becoming more forgetful, and Ellen's heart isn't as strong as it used to be. They may have to sell the ranch and move into town, and that would be the death of both of them. Ellen's making a wedding quilt for her granddaughter's upcoming wedding, and her granddaughter has come to the ranch because she's having second thoughts about marriage. This all takes place in the early 1950's, but most of the story told by Ellen takes place in the late 1890's. Seeking to counsel her granddaughter, Ellen tells June about a woman named Nell, who ran away from marriage three times.  

Nell, a young woman in the late 1890's moves to New Mexico Territory to work on a ranch with her Aunt. She's seeking a husband, but unlike other women at that time, isn't broadcasting it loudly. She's not at the ranch for long before one of the cowboys catches her eye. Buddy is not like the other cowboys; he's quiet, educated, and doesn't flirt with Nell. Love slowly develops, but anger and misunderstanding break Nell and Buddy apart, and Nell moves back to her grandparent's farm in Kansas to heal her heart. And that begins Nell's search for love with a good man. 

I like the way the novel is a story wrapped in a story. Nell is a young woman at a time when women were beginning to step out of traditional roles and become more independent, yet there were still societal expectations that could work against them. Nell is independent, smart, and has already worked as a teacher. She's so much more, but finds herself limited by being a single woman in a world where a woman's reputation could be ruined by one minor incident. She wants to get married and have a family, but it's proving much more difficult than she imagined. Buddy still lingers in her mind...is there any way they will find each other again?

I have to say Ellen and Ben's relationship, after fifty years of marriage, was so endearing. Simply holding hands, reminiscing, and riding out to special spots on the ranch were, at the end of the day, the heart of their love for each other. Heartbreaking to think about leaving the ranch, and Ben's memory fading away. As Ellen thinks in the beginning of the novel, she will die, and all her memories will go with her, because there's no one to tell, and no one to remember.

You'll guess the obvious in this novel, and that's okay. I don't believe the author meant it to be hard to figure out. Finding your true love, that one person who fits perfectly into your puzzle, is what this sweet tale is all about. Make the memories. Enjoy the ride. Love fiercely. Tell those stories. 

Rating:  4/6 for a sweetly told tale of searching for love, making mistakes, and passing on those stories to the next generation. 

Available in hardcover and ebook.   

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost by Lucy Banks

I came across this book while shelving in the library. Actually, I came across the second in the series, The Case of the Deadly Doppleganger and was ready to check it out before I discovered it was actually the second in the Dr. Ribero's Agency of the Supernatural series. I'm happy to say I've discovered a series that I thoroughly enjoy.

Kester Lanner has recently lost his mother, and she has left instructions for him to travel to Exeter, in England, to a rather run-down building, to meet Dr. Ribero. Kester finds out Dr. Ribero is actually his father, and he runs a very odd company, with a small crew of argumentative people: Ms. Wellbeloved, Pamela, Mike, and Serena. And by argumentative, I mean they're all continually squabbling. Sheesh, talk about a toxic work environment! But underneath it all lies a firm foundation of togetherness. Dr. Ribero and crew run a supernatural agency. 

Kester, an overweight, pale, delicate sort of young man, relies on facts and reality, and he's thrown a curve meeting his father and the crew. In fact, he's actually dreadfully frightened of the unknown. But, he's inherited a skill from his mother: his ability to open a door to the spirit world that spirits just can't resist. It's a rare gift, and one that Kester hasn't mastered at all. The agency has a bit of an unusual job: a haunted portrait that enchants men and terrorizes their wives. If they don't solve this haunting, and capture the spirit, they will have to close the doors of the agency for good. Will Kester help them, or be the end of them?

So aside from the constant bickering between Serena (geez, she's got an attitude) and Mike, I liked the small crew at the agency. Pamela and Ms. Wellbeloved were the anchors, and quite lovely women, with their own particular talents. Serena is the one who can capture spirits in water bottles, and Mike is the techno guy who is constantly trying to fix, improve, and create technology to help them with their jobs. Dr. Ribero is a quirky, mysterious leader, and a father Kester never imagined. Kester is the most interesting. He's a sad sack, barely ever leaving home, loves to read, is great at research, but hasn't lived a life at all--until he meets the crew. Waffling between being terrified and interested in capturing spirits, he's a man-child on the cusp of potential great change, if only he can get up the courage to jump. 

I read reviews of this novel on Goodreads, and I'd say roughly half the folks either gave up, or complained about the argumentative cast of characters. I loved it, and it reminded me a bit of Simon Green's Ghost Finders series. I am heading to work today, hopeful the second in the series in still on a shelf waiting for me to check it out. Anyone who enjoys series with a supernatural twist will enjoy this one. I can't wait to see what trouble the crew get into, and see Kester mature. It's a contemporary novel, but the feel to it kept me thinking it was not contemporary; but that didn't really bother me. I thought the ghost story was pretty clever, and I can tell the author put some thought/research into the legend of that particular spirit while developing the novel. 

Yay! Another series I like. I'm continually surprised that I keep happening upon new series. I can't promise I'll always read every book in the series-sometimes they just go on for too long--(Laurel K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, Patricia Cornwell, Jim Butcher). But for now, I'll continue to enjoy Dr. Ribero and his unique agency. 

Here's the second in the series, out now:

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining start to a new supernatural series. I am looking forward to reading more! 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

I consider myself more of a solitary person than one who has to be in the midst of people all of the time, but I certainly can't imagine living by myself in the woods for 27 years and avoiding any human contact. That's just what Christopher Knight did when, at age 20, he parked his car, left his keys on the console, and with little more than the clothes on his back and a tent, walked into the Maine woods. 

He never contacted his family, and until he was caught stealing from a camp in 2013, he lived a solitary life in a camp secluded enough that no one ever found it, but only a few miles away from popular lakes and cabins that had plenty of people around during the Maine summer months. He survived by breaking into cabins and stealing food, clothing, supplies, and propane tanks to melt snow for water. He took books and spent all of his time sitting still in his camp, reading and listening to the radio with headphones. His desire to be alone wasn't caused by mental issues; Christopher found himself most happy and alive living a solitary existence in nature. Some call him a hermit; others a thief. Some question his mental stability; others recognize in Christopher his deep introversion and inability to live in a world full of chaos and noise. We all seek those times of solitude in order to think, clear our brains, and recharge our batteries. Studies have shown spending even a short time outside in the woods can calm our blood pressure, relax our minds, and infuse us with a sense of wellbeing and peace. For Christopher, it was essential to his survival; even the hardest of times during the winter contributed to his sense of satisfaction and contentment. 

I found this a fascinating tale, written by a man who visited Christopher in jail and before he was taken to court. Michael Finkel's attempt at understanding Christopher's life in the woods was pretty satisfying to me; surrounding his tale with some of the history of hermits, anchorites, and others who chose to live a solitary existence throughout history. It helped frame the extraordinary tale of Christopher. And it is extraordinary, that this man walked away from one life and created another by sheer hard work and determination.

 Reading this book reminded me of the importance of solitude. I certainly feel after a day of being surrounded by people: the noise, the personalities, the emotions; that coming home to a quiet house becomes increasingly necessary for me to balance myself. Luckily, my partner feels the same way, and is a man who finds his sense of self and extreme peace in the quiet of the woods, away from people. It literally recharges his mental batteries; I've seen the change in him time and again after a day spent by himself in nature. I think for me, reading quietly at home is my own escape that refreshes me and is a balm to my soul. It helps prepare me to put on my "game face" and walk back into my everyday busy world. 

This is a short book, and quick to read. I had to check online to make sure Christopher is still alive and well, and he is, but I have to wonder if he is happy living again around people. I can only imagine his grief at losing that solitary existence. 

Rating:  5/6 for a intriguing look at one man's desire to live a life of solitude, and an author's attempt to understand the driving force behind that desire. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Late Bloomers' Club by Louise Miller

I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of The Late Bloomers' Club in the mail last week. I absolutely loved Louise Miller's first novel, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living.  Set in the little town of Guthrie, Vermont, this novel has the same warmth and delicious baking that made CBGTCL one of my favorite reads of 2016. 

Nora Huckleberry owns and runs the town's beloved Miss Guthrie Diner; first started by her parents, and inherited by Nora after her mother dies of cancer and her father falls apart. Taking care of her younger sister Kit as a teenager, Nora has always done what she should do, rather than what she wants. The diner is popular, but always has something that needs fixing, and takes up so much of Nora's time she has little for her real passion: creating art. When a local cake baker, Peggy Johnson suddenly dies and leaves her house and land to Nora and Kit, it starts a whole new chance for the town, and Nora, to begin a new life. 

Elliot, a representative from HG Corporation, had been in talks with Peggy before her death on purchasing her land for a new big box store. Nora and Kit could sell the land, pay all their bills, and have some extra cash. It would help Kit with her struggling film career, and help Nora get ahead of diner bills. But Peggy's home includes an old growth orchard and some surprises in the woods. As Nora discovers what Peggy kept hidden from the town, she falls in love with the comfort, quiet, and sense of home Peggy's place provides. And darn it all, Elliot is a cutie, too. Nora has to not only think about what would benefit her, but what a big box store would mean to the town of Guthrie and all the small shop owners who make their living from tourists. It would change the makeup of Guthrie permanently, and while there are benefits, are they worth it?

There's so much more to this novel; I don't want to give any of it away. Cakes are a big part of it all, and like a great cake, you should savor every bite. Peggy's life may have seemed quiet, but she had a lot going on behind the scenes, and those secrets effect Nora and Kit's choices. 

This was such a lovely book to read, especially after The Hunger. The town of Guthrie must surely exist somewhere, and all the wonderful folks who make Guthrie a special place are out there, too. Characters from The City Baker's Guide to Country Living populate this novel, and it felt like a continuing story, with hardly any time gone by. 

A big thank you to Pamela Dorman/Viking for an advanced review copy. Just what this gal needed in the dog days of summer. 

Rating:  5/6 for a delightful return to the small Vermont town of Guthrie. It's never too late to realize your dreams.  And the cakes! Oh, the cakes. Yum. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

I've posted a video review of The Hunger on my Facebook page @bookaliciousbabe.  

I'll just say this was an unexpected find during a visit to Barnes & Noble; I went to work the next day and it came across my desk; that meant I had to read it! 

A real thriller/chiller retelling of the Donner Party Tragedy of 1846-47 with a supernatural twist. I consider this a horror novel.  I even go so far as to say it would make a good book club discussion book.  

American pioneers were an extraordinarily brave group of people, traveling across unknown territory hundreds of miles with only a hope that the end resulted in a place they could settle, raise a family, and create a new life. That's tough enough, but imagine if on the way (which you started months too late to safely get through before the snow starts flying), something is stalking you. Something that is not natural; something that looks human but isn't quite--was it ever human? Imagine that there's more than one of these creatures, and as you become more desperate as food runs low, tempers flare, hope begins to fade, you realize something horrible is out there, waiting to strike. 

The tension ramps up in this novel, and Alma Katsu masterfully blends the past with the present situation for each of the main characters. Everyone has secrets they are running from, and this wagon train to California forces those secrets out. Just how far will people go to survive?

Take a look at my video review; hope you enjoy it. I tend to just start recording and whatever falls out of my mouth, well, that's it. That's how I review books. 

Rating:  5/6 for a thriller that kept me on the edge. Even knowing what the actual outcome of the Donner Party was, I still kept hoping something would change. Throw in a horrible supernatural slant, and the story takes on an even darker edge. It's been optioned for a film, and I hope it happens--I'll go see it!

Available in hardcover and ebook.