“Count the Ways” by Joyce Maynard

Genre: Domestic Fiction/Coming of AgeCount The Ways
Publisher: William Morrow and Custom House
Pub. Date: July 13, 2021

A domestic saga set in the 1970s and 1980s that goes back and forth between past and present.  The novel opens with our protagonist Eleanor, returning to the farm she once found, owned, and lived on as mother and wife, before her divorce and life tore the family apart. In trying to be a good mother, she loses everything. The occasion for the return is the wedding of Al, Eleanor’s firstborn, who is a transgender man.  Eleanor’s past is a painful one. Her present day captures both suffering and joy. The pacing is swift and the plot turns seem authentic as the family evolves. I did think the chapters were too long, sometimes with repeating themes.  However, the book is 464 pages and one could say it needed that many pages to digest all the hurt that included two tragedies in Eleanor’s life.

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“An Unwanted Guest” by Shari Lapena

Genre: Mystery/ThrillerAb Unwanted Guest
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pub. Date: May 14, 2019

Mini-Review

“An Unwanted Guest” is a modern-day version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” which was later renamed to, “And Then There Were None.” In “None,” eight strangers are invited to Indian Island, only to find that an unseen person is killing them one by one. In Lapena’s novel, nine guests who mostly do not know each other are snowed in at the remote mountain Inn where they are vacationing. In both novels, due to a storm, they lose electricity bumping up tension equally between the stories. I thought the great Christie “showed” more than “explained” the reasons for the murders more cleverly than Lapena did. Still, Lapena delivers a solid whodunit with an ending that would make Dame Christie proud.

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“The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan

Genre:  Speculative The Candy HouseFiction
Publisher:  Scribner
Pub. Date: April 5, 2022

Mini-Review

If “A Visit from the Goon Squad” was organized like a concept album, “The Candy House,” which is referred to as a sister book to “Goon Squad,” uses Electronic dance music but in a more paradoxical format than “Squad.” Here the reader has the sensation of traveling through multiple realities. It took me a while to get into “Goon Squad.” I never felt connected to the characters but Egan won me over with her gutsy narrative as she used a PowerPoint presentation to narrate one of the interconnected stories.  Egan is just as gutsy and gifted with “House.” Yet, I simply had trouble with the Sci-Fi elements to truly enjoy the book. This might be on me. I may be on a speculative fiction overload. I loved the author’s historical fiction, “Manhattan Beach.” Maybe I will read a couple of historical fiction novels—my favorite genre—and then return to “The Candy House.” I feel obligated to give a Pulitzer Prize winning author a second chance.

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

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“Out There” by Kate Folk

Genre: Short Stories: Science Fiction/ Horror/Black ComedyOut There
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: March 29, 2022

I went out of my comfort zone for this one. The stories of “Out There” offer a razor-sharp analysis of the madness found in everyday life in the digital age. They are creepy, bizarre, and filled with black humor, yet they have a sobering effect on the reader. What makes these strange stories almost credible is that they have elements of truth in them. Folk manages this by tapping into our deepest social and personal anxieties. Still, these shorts are not for all. I am not usually a fan of magical realism. I enjoyed these because they were very well done. Having said that, I want to disclose that I often felt a surrealism overload. I would take a break to read something else for a while before returning to the book. This worked for me.

In the title story, the author takes getting a spam email to a whole other level. Here, a woman decides to break down and check out online dating apps. However, there’s a catch: women know that many of the too-handsome-to-believe men who use dating apps are “blots,” fake humans who pose as eligible males. Then Folk further plays on our fears. The purpose of the blots is to obtain their targets’ personal information for Russian hackers. The premise of the narrative is that women think, “What else can I do to meet someone? Nowadays, people seem to connect exclusively through dating apps.” What makes this story so unsettling is that in modern dating we are so hungry for love that we are willing to sacrifice so much of ourselves to find a genuine connection.

Another story exploring the depth of our romantic needs is “The Bone Yard.” It is one of the creepiest stories in the collection. The setting is a medical center where the patients suffer from a mysterious bone-melting disease. Think of any graphic comic, novel, or movie with scenes that illustrate the human body melting into puddles of either goo, jelly-like substances, or just a skeletal structure with bits of slime-like flesh hanging off. The visuals are horrific. In the daytime, the patients receive nursing care as they group together to watch trashy TV shows. In the evening, they sleep in pods to hold their bones together. They often sneak out of the pods to have sex. When their bones are too squishy they are placed in “skeletons,” which are described as painful Iron Lungs. And, believe it or not, it is here that a deadly love triangle begins, which is even scarier than the melting bones. Font expertly spooks with such turns, overshadowing the strange with the familiar. Once again, it’s the everyday need for connection that haunts us most.

The ending short brings us back to the first story on male “blots.” This time the blot’s goal is to have sex with a woman so they can take the woman’s personal data with their penises (I kid you not) to send to the Russians. Intimacy is confronted in surprising ways throughout the collection: a God-like void comes to wipe out the globe, and all must choose who they want to spend eternity with; a man has a textbook codependent relationship, except it is with a house that requires special, demanding care; a loving family accepts their gay son, but also physically harm each other for fun. There’s the one where a head slowly grows out of the floor of a woman’s apartment. And the one that had me squeamishly laughing takes place in a world where sexual encounters revolve around the fetishizing of internal organs. If you are into speculative fiction, you will eat this one up. If you are not, just read one or two stories to admire the author’s skills.

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

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“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: Dystopian/SKlara and the suncience Fiction 
Publishers: Knopf Double
Pub. Date: March 2, 2021

I am not usually a fan of dystopian novels but Noble prizewinner, Kazuo Ishiguro, writes science fiction that feels all too real. In his 2005 novel, “Never Let Me Go Kathy is the narrator. She seems to be telling the tale of her youth at a boarding school.  In actuality, her school is a place where clones are created to live their shortened lives as organ providers for “real” humans. Staying on the same master/slave theme, in “Klara and the Sun,” a robot tries to make sense of humanity. Once again, allowing the author to explore life, love, and morality. Set in the near future when it is popular for a human family to buy an artificial friend (AF) as a child’s companion.

Klara is an artificial friend. Interestingly, she is the most empathic character in the novel. She like Kathy is also our narrator. We first meet Klara in a store window where she is sitting soaking up the sun and hoping to be picked out from the others, bought, and goes home with a family. An AF is solar-powered. The novel never mentions religion still it is clear that “the Sun” is Klara’s God.  She only refers to the sun as “he.” Besides that, many religions refer to God as a male I also wondered if Ishiguro was emphasizing his theme. Was he pointing out that we still live in a male-dominated world? However, I could be reaching because Klara despises pollution.  She, like us, will die without the sun. Maybe that was the author’s warning message.

Klara is bought as an AF for Josie, a human sick child who was “lifted.” The term means receiving genetic enhancements. It is clear “lifted” is a reference to the vanity pride real-life parents feel when they are told that their child is gifted. Think of wealthy parents who insist that their kids go to a preschool that is known to produce future Ivy Leaguers. In the real world, the wealthy indeed enjoy more life and employment opportunities while the poor have few or no opportunities and are often confined to menial jobs. However, “lifting” sometimes causes serious health side effects. Here the tale dramatizes the dilemmas parents would face in a world where genetic enhancements are necessary to secure a good life for their offspring. God help us, I do not think this is as farfetched as it sounds.

The character Rick is a human boy who is not from a wealthy family. He is teased by the other kids because he has not been “lifted.” Although his parents are in a lower economic position than their neighbors are, they may be the lucky ones. They do not have to make a consequential decision regarding their child. The genius of Ishiguro is that his prose reads deceptively simple, but it doesn’t take long to realize you are reading a thought-provoking novel that examines who we are in the year 2021.

Klara’s world seems way too close for comfort.  Have we—or will we— soon be unable to distinguish right from wrong?  Will there ever become a time when all individuals have equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents?  As stellar as this book is it is not flawless. Some of the plotlines do not seem to be fully developed.  The scene in which Rick carries Klara to Mr. McBain’s barn for the first time is very significant in the novel. However, it took me a while to understand what was going on.  Warts and all, this is a very good book. I stayed up nights thinking about all the author’s warning messages.

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“A Slow Fire Burning” by Paula Hawkins

Genre: Murder Mystery/Psychological ThrillerA Slow Fire Burning
Publisher: Penguin Random House Canada
Pub. Date: August 31, 2021

Mini-Review

Not the author’s best. A senior woman living on a houseboat discovers the body of her neighbor, a young man who also lives in a floating home. We meet multiple suspects, one male, and three females. Two of the women are estranged sisters. There is a lot of bouncing around. It takes a while to get all the characters in place in your mind.  They are well written and all interesting in different ways. You will meet a cast of quirky, snobby, poor, heartbroken, angry, pitiful, and senile individuals. The novel has way too many subplots that include crimes such as incest, abduction, sexual assault, hit-and-run, petty larceny, plagiarism, bar brawling, and criminal negligence making a convoluted story—Overkill (no pun intended).

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

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#review #5stars Sleigh Bell Tower: Murder at the Campus Holiday Gala, by James J Cudney #NextChapterPub @jamescudney4

Didi Oviatt -Author

MY REVIEW:

Kellan Airwick is a character with many solved murder mysteries under his belt. And, even though his boss is sending him to Scotland soon -partially in hopes that with with his bad luck gone people will stop attacking one another on or around campus – things still manage to get out of hand around the holidays prior to his trip. Fortunately, Kellan has very keen sleuth skills, and pared with April his girlfriend/sheriff there’s is nothing that can go unsolved in Wharton county.
As with all the previous Braxton Campus cozy mysteries, Nana D is my favorite character. She’s a classy, sassy ol’ broad with a bunch of wit and grit. She’s Kellan’s Nana but she’s also the Mayor of Wharton county, and in the case of Sleigh Bell Tower she’s got quite the mess to work out by means of shotty old paperwork that was passed through…

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“Our Little World “by Karen Winn

Genre: Adult Coming of AgeOur Little orld
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pub. Date: May 3, 2022

A sorrowful coming-of-age narrative about a twelve-year-old girl whose eleven-year-old sister dies. There was an age-appropriate competition between them.  The author has us reading in between the lines to understand that if the younger sister hadn’t died, they would have grown to be close adult siblings. The setting is a typical New Jersey suburban community in the 1980s, where nothing evil is supposed to happen. Winn captures the era perfectly, as well as the cul-de-sac where the kids play and live.

We learn on the first page that this isn’t the first time the older sister has witnessed death up close. Their five-year-old next-door neighbor is abducted and later found murdered. The novel is quite well written. Winn does an excellent job of capturing every parent’s worst nightmare. This is novel is also a murder mystery.  However, the story’s true strength lies in the sisters’ relationship, particularly the older girl’s heartbeaking inner world.

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

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Passed Thanksgivings (I wrote the below to help me heal).

My mom passed away last month. I am appreciative that she had the type of send-off that she requested, a celebration of life in the form of an Irish wake (not a drop of Irish blood was her. Not sure where she learned the expression). At her funeral, people were laughing, eating, and drinking as if it were an open house party. Okay, there were a few tears shed, but not until the very end at the actual service.

My first Thanksgiving without her will be a bittersweet one. Especially since when I was a kid, Thanksgiving used to be my mother’s holiday that we celebrated with her (Pecchio) side of my family. (Technically, there would be one Maselli, dad’s side, that’s because my dad’s sister married my mom’s brother). Mom would be cooking for weeks before Thanksgiving. When the day finally arrived, her siblings and their kids would arrive at 1 p.m. and depart around 8 p.m. in between these hours there was an almost unbelievable gluttonous feast.

Until my dad made an extension to the dining room table us kids would eat in the kitchen. We would start off with cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Though I do recall sometimes she also had a half grapefruit with sugar on top. The antipasto came next. If you’re familiar with the term “antipasto,” you’ll understand that is a lot of food. However, she kept it small because the first course would soon arrive, which was our usual Sunday meal. Homemade manicotti with homemade red sauce or what we called gravy. The pot was filled with meatballs, sausage and braciole. Until this day, I have a hard time eating Italian red sauce that comes in a jar.

The busy female bees would be scrubbing pots in the kitchen. The men usually watched football in the tiny room right off of the dining room that we called the den. When all returned to the table there was the turkey with all the trimmings; Italian stuffing, double-baked potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, a variety of vegetables, and stuffed mushrooms that rarely made it to the table because everyone would go into the kitchen and steal some. Plus, another mushroom dish that was referred to solely as “burnt mushrooms.” They were excellent despite the gross name.

The bees would go back to work, often to find a side dish that was forgotten to be brought out of the kitchen. Mom would next serve us roasted chestnuts, figs, and fruit. She would say, I kid you not, “to help you digest.” I believe that most other families would not be able to eat another morsel. Might even be feeling physically ill.

At this point, year after year, my cousins and I would take over the television and watch the
original version of “Willy Wonka.” But we would be back at the table, for my mom’s homemade pumpkin pie, Italian ricotta cheesecake, and the Italian pastries that the family members inevitably brought. Dessert would be served with regular coffee and espresso with Anisette. Would you believe me when I tell you, that not one of us at the table was overweight? I have absolutely no idea how we pulled that off.

Now the meal was finally over, and everyone’s pants buttons were open. Sometimes zippers were down too. My cousins and I would walk to the playground or go up to my bedroom to hide from the major cleanup. We played games. As we grew into teens, we would listen to records, and later escape with our spouses.

Then in the early evening, all went home. This was our typical Italian-American Thanksgiving. Looking back today as a senior citizen, I am not sure how we managed to eat that much. I have to ask my cousins if my memories are correct. These long-ago sweet holidays will stay we me until my own last days. Despite my sadness this year, I wish everybody a safe and Happy Thanksgiving 2021.