“The Guilt Trip” by Sandie Jones

Genre: Mystery & Thrillers/Women’s FictionThe Guilt Trip
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Pub. Date: August 3, 2021

Do not be guilted into reading this tedious novel that revolves around three couples that repeatedly asks the questions who loves who and who is cheating on who. One wife, who is the book’s main narrator, tortures herself with suspicious thoughts, which seems to be the story’s only theme. Maybe for you but, certainly not for this reviewer.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Guncle” by Steven Rowley

The Guncle


Genre: Comedy-Drama/LGBTQ
Publishers: G.P. Putnam
Pub. Date: May 25, 2021

Mini-Review

Although “The Guncle” deals with young children losing their mother to cancer as their father checks into rehab for addiction, it’s still a funny, feel-good read. Expect to laugh a lot. While dad gets his act together (he is a good dad), the kids leave their Connecticut home and travel to California to spend the summer with their gay Uncle Patrick, who they call GUP. Patrick is a former TV star who became a shut-in following the death of his partner. At first, he’s a fish out of water with the kids, which makes for some very funny dialogue. But, he rather quickly turns into a combination of Uncle Joey and Uncle Jesse from “Full House.” You get the picture. When he isn’t poking fun at his own vanity, or that of the Hollywood cliques with which he used to run, Patrick is busy answering the kids’ many questions with panache. Between laughs, Rowley manages to make the reader feel genuine grief for the children’s and Patrick’s loss. Without being preachy, he gives us a credible glimpse of the difficulties of being a gay man in a straight world.  Of course, the uncle and kids help each other heal. However, you won’t mind the clichés. In this type of tale, you expect the obvious. Think “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman. Predictable, yes, but also a delight. It ends (spoiler) with a return to show business—with the help of his six-year-old nephew, ten-year-old niece, and pinch a of YouTube magic, our hero makes a well-earned comeback.

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“The Turnout” by Megan Abbott

The Turn Out

Genre: Mystery & Thrillers
Publisher: G.P. Putam’s Sons
Pub. Date: August 3, 2021

Mini-Review

The book is marketed as a mystery and thriller but it is more a psychological cringe-worthy suspense story. The novel’s title is taken from a ballet position that is unnatural to the body and leads to long-term foot and lower-body damage. We meet, two sisters who are running and teaching dance in their late mother’s ballet school. Like the infamous ballet, “The Nutcracker,” this novel is also a dark fairytale. The sisters have some serious twisty issues. Deliciously gothic—saying anything more would be a spoiler.  Nevertheless, exposing the underbelly of the cutthroat dance world is where Abbott’s writing shines. She can almost make you feel her characters’ high level of chronic pain that is considered simply par for the course. Teachers warn their students that when a dancer is no longer in pain they are no longer a dancer. The girls destroy their feet in a manner that reminded me of the tortures of foot binding. Eating disorders are the norm. Their bodies are covered with soft downy hair, which is the telling sign of anorexia. The toilets need to be plunged throughout the day due to the constant vomiting.  This is all taken for granted, just another day at school. Other than the ending that came wrapped up in a bow, the author’s prose is taut and tense making “The Turnout” a good summer read.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Clementine Lane” by Eoghan Brunkard

Genre: Contemporary Urban FictionClementine Lane
Publisher: Self Published
Publication Date: April 26, 2021

The writer, Eoghan Brunkard, found me on an online book distributor site where authors can submit their books to reviewers.  I usually do not accept books from this site because, in my opinion, they tend to offer low quality novels. (Yes, I can be a book snob). In the author’s request, he wrote, “Clementine Lane is a humorous, often empathetic, look at ordinary peoples’ lives in contemporary Ireland.”  This caught my interest so I figured I’d give it a try. I am glad that I did because I found the novel to be well-written, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny. “Clementine” reminded me of the movie, “The Commitments,” which also took place in Dublin’s working-class inner-city.  Like in the film, there are colorful, foul-mouthed, fast-talking, and loveable characters. “Phyllis and Shane were good people and raised their children with interest, but they also raised them as they were raised.” Phyllis finds her 8-year-old son outdoors at night. “What are you doing out at this fucking time?!” Yet later in the tale, she complains about her 14-year-old daughter’s language. “With that foul mouth of yours? God forgive me, I don’t know where you get it from.”

The heart of the tale begins in an abandoned warehouse when Phyllis’s daughter befriends an adult male who is a homeless alcoholic. She asks him, “how did you end up like this, anyway?”  He replies, “I have been asked that a lot…I have an answer already pre-prepared like a job interview.” His silly answer to the girl answers nothing. This is how the author cleverly reminds us, without preaching, that addiction can happen to anyone. The story’s tension derives from a drug rehab that has been granted permission to open up a center in the lane. The residents take a ‘Not In My Backyard’ stand.  We get an ugly and honest front row look on the stigma faced by those struggling with addiction. “We’ll be terrified that a junkie will have a go or try to sell shite to the kids.” 

The author sets his stage with vivid descriptions of the neighborhood, which include cottages meant for a small family. “However, liberal lust mixed with conservative Catholicism meant they usually housed a larger one.” As the lane widens, you will find rows of flats. Between them lies a basketball court with no hoops in a perpetually locked playground, “an amenity that the locals cannot be trusted with.” There is a former nunnery, where God must still be looking down on them because outside the building sits a thriving, “beautiful cherry blossom, which in April fills the dreary urban landscape with pink petals.” And, in the evenings, the “silver serpent street lamps slowly hissed to life outside Cartigan’s pub.” It could be said that in today’s apostate times the pub is more religiously frequented than St. Luke’s Church. But, don’t worry about the residents’ souls because Father Thomas can usually be found there too since the church closes at nighttime. “The wrong type tended to pray at 9.pm on a Friday night.”

“Clementine” should be read with a pint of ale or cider in hand. Still, while remaining in a comedy-parable style, empathy and the “importance of community in an increasingly isolating and individualizing world” is the recurring theme. A minor character who is a journalist visits the lane and decides to write an article, which he will call “Forgotten Pieces.” His motivation comes from “watching a couple aged by heroin, though they were probably just in their 40s.” Weaved into the plot is a children-scaring nun mystery that has haunted the lane for a century. It is an amusing side plot that does not distract from the story but it is not necessarily needed. It may be overkill. My funny bone did not need further tickling. The novel is peppered with “Irish Speak.” A glossary is included for non-Irish readers like myself. After the glossary, there is an “About The Author” page where he shares that in real life he has worked on inner-city community development projects. When one of his characters says, “We must remember not to lose sight of the human in the addiction,” it is fair to guess that is the author’s sentiment as well. Without resorting to too much sentimentality, “Clementine” is a fun, moving tale that is wiser than it initially lets on.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman

Anxious people

Genre: Comedy
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: Sept. 8, 2020

Similar to his debut novel, “A Man called Ove,” “Anxious People” is also a comic novel about the fragile human psyche and how kindness and compassion can count so much in surviving each day in this topsy-turvy world. In a small Swedish town a parent, short on rent and afraid of losing child custody, ineptly attempts to rob a bank. When that doesn’t work (it’s a cashless bank) and the police (who are a lovable father and son team) are closing in, while still wearing a ski mask and holding a toy handgun, the would-be robber flees into a nearby apartment building and slips inside an apartment where a real estate agent is in the middle of an open house. This is how eight people become unlikely friends in a non-intentional hostage situation. Believable, no—Funny, yes.

Backman’s characters are all misfits and quirky and his writing is a bit quirky as well.  He starts his tale with, “This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.” He uses humor to explore life, marriage, parenthood, love, and death while suggesting that that none of us should judge others since being human is “idiotically difficult.”  “Anxious People” may not be for everyone. It can read like one long, admittedly dark humor funny, monologue about of all things bridges and suicides. Maybe because this reviewer just finished a comic novel on suicide that this tale is not quite the homerun that I was expecting. Nevertheless, give it a try, if not for anything else but a great twist that of course will make you rethink your criticisms of others.

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“A Woman of Intelligence’ by Karin Tanabe

A Woman of Intelligence

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: June 20, 2021

The woman might have been intelligent but the story was dim-witted. The setting is in NYC in the year1954. Marketed as historical fiction the novel is really women’s fiction centering on an Ivy-League-educated bored homemaker and mother of two young sons. The FBI approaches her to help them on a case with a Russian ex-boyfriend of hers. She agrees while keeping her husband in the dark. (This alone makes this an unbelievable read). Now there are plenty of espionage novels out there where the protagonist is a female. I am guessing some are good but this one just isn’t one of them. To be fair to the author, she does a good job of showing us how hard and underappreciated it is to be a stay at home mom. And, I did enjoy her novel, “A Hundred Suns.” In that book, her writing shines. Here it is sophomoric.  Or maybe it wasn’t the writing, but a plot-line that never seemed credible. 

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“Together We Will Go” by J. Michael Straczynski

Together we will go

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Pub. Date: July 6, 2021

While reading the book I was not aware that J. Micahel Straczynski, is the co-creator of many TV shows including “Babylon 5: The Lost Tales.” Even without this knowledge, I could tell that he is a talented and funny writer.  “Together We Will Go” is a tragic comedy.  I say this because the novel looks at the reasons why people commit suicide yet, the author will make you laugh time and time again.  He manages to do this without taking away from the seriousness of the subject matter. For example, the main narrator is a failed novelist with tons of student debt and a degree in writing that pretty much is useless for paying the bills. He thinks, merely coming from Jersey is reason enough to off yourself. If you know any New Jersey jokes, how do you not laugh and that?

The premise of the story is just plain weird.  A group of strangers come together, through the classifieds, for a bus trip where the destination is death. They intend to go somewhere pretty and then drive the bus over a cliff.  The idea is to not die alone. Straczynski gets the reader to ignore how unbelievable the plotline is by making his characters relatable, human. You can probably find a little bit of yourself in each of them. The only condition to join the death bus is that each rider must journal his/her reasons for wanting to die. Each journal reads like a case study on the character. Some journals are so deep and thought provoking they could have been novels by themselves. Among others, the reader will meet, a person living in chronic pain who just can’t take it anymore, a party-loving bipolar woman who cannot be stabilized with medication, a terminally ill man with a hole in his heart that turns his skin blue, and a gentle soul who is mentally ill and wants to die with his dying cat. They are all hoping that their next life will be a better one. The author does not clump his characters together. He makes them individuals. Some characters believe that they will be going to heaven or hell, others think that they will be reincarnated while others feel that they will return to earth as lifeless particles of matter.

The novel is narrated in a gutsy way that forces the reader to pay attention. Think “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. Egan had a PowerPoint presentation, but Straczynski has journals, texts, emails, voicemails, and audio recordings. As expected, all characters become endearing to the reader. Nevertheless, don’t expect a Hollywood ending. This is an intelligent, bizarre, and sad story that will make you think that the characters are your friends. You may even go back and reread some of the journals. Sometimes, the tale is a bit too much for my taste. Such as when they break into a mall, cause why not. They are going to die anyway. While inside they do whatever they want, so all hell breaks loose. Even though this is hard to buy (like where are the police?) I did chuckle when an obese girl whacks a stick-wide mannequin, which no real woman looks like while telling the mannequin that she needs to eat a ham sandwich. “Together We Will Go” is not making light of suicide.  What the author does do is explore those intense emotions that can become deadly. He just does this in a Monty Python kind of way. He uses humor to show us what it looks like to be depressed, or have suicidal ideation, and how anyone can be vulnerable to suicide. The book closes with The National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
 
I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Landslide” by Susan Conley

Landside

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:  Penguin Random House Canada
Pub. Date: Feb. 2, 2021

Mini-Review

This is a character-driven story about a family living on an island in Maine who are trying to survive the constant rough waters life throws at them. The husband is one of the few remaining fishermen in their declining coastal town. The wife is a documentarian.  Nevertheless, her husband is the true breadwinner between them and money is always tight. While in Canada, a boat the husband is working on explodes. He is severely hurt and must remain in a Canadian hospital for weeks. Also, he may not be able to continue working once released. This worry and their lengthy separation threaten his already shaky marriage. The author does a good job showing the difficulty in a marriage when one of them is often away for days at a time. In essence, the novel is about a fisherman’s wife, alone with her two teenage sons—whom she calls ‘the wolves’—trying to cope in a home that is falling apart while her sons are acting out. The author nails the complexities of modern-day parenting, for a single mom, since she practically is one.  However, the story’s true strength is that the reader gets an inside view of the current lives of coastal Mainers and the hardships that they endure as a local and not a tourist. The novel sometimes can read uneven bouncing back and forth from global warming, to living with a father-in-law who thinks that his daughter-in-law is too easy on his grandsons, to a marriage in crisis. Still, in limited prose, Cloney writes a compelling read.

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