“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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“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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“The Whitby Murders” by J.R. Ellis

Genre: Gothic Murder MysteryThe Whitby Murders
Publishers: Amazon Publishing
Pub. May 27, 2021

Mini-Review

My 2021 Halloween read was a colossal blunder. I have never been a fan of murder mystery series books. I usually find them predictable.  But, I still had not read this year’s spooky story. As a result, I started this book on October 31st because the setting revolves around a Dracula escape room at a Goth festival near Halloween. I have enjoyed the suspense in other escape room novels. This isn’t one of them. The plot was fine, but the characters were one-dimensional, and the writing was flaccid and clumsy. Plus, it irritated me that the detective had to explain his thoughts throughout the novel as the murder did in the ending.

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 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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“The Push” by Claire McGowan

Genre: Mystery & ThrillersThe Push
Publisher:  Amazon UK
Pub. Date: Nov. 12, 2020

Itsy Bitsy Review

Four women and their partners meet for prenatal meetings.  The characters are all different and interesting. Some you will like and some you will not care for in a big way.  Would you want to hang out with a racist, a homophobic, an ageist, an enabler, or a classist? I promise they are all not like that. Some will break your heart. After the babies are born there is a reunion at an over the top mansion of the richest in the group. Someone is pushed over a balcony and dies. Does the plot sound familiar—yup for me. This novel is a “Big Little Lies,” wannabe. If you ignore all the isims it can read as a good thriller but I have already read this story just with a different name. The ‘woman’ investigator, again like “Lies” is having problems conceiving, which influences her judgment on the suspects.  Okay, a nice touch, and there are twists (not too hard to guess) but I still think this is a wannabe novel.

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

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“Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger

Genre:  Literary Fiction /Murder MysteryOrdinary Grace
Publisher: Atria
Pub. Date:  Oct. 19, 2012

“The sky had changed.  The gray sky deepened to the color of charcoal and the clouds had begun to boil” is an example of the gorgeous prose in this gem of a novel.   “Ordinary Grace” is marketed as a murder mystery.  It reads much more like a touching coming-of-age story set in a small Minnesota town where a murder takes place.  The book was published in 2012. It later went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2014.  I am not sure how I came across this novel but I am very glad that I did.  “Grace” sends readers back in time to 1961 when the Minnesota Twins were playing their debut season, JFK was the new young president and life in a small town included a soda fountain, barbershop, and church. In the prologue, you will learn “It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms.  Accident.  Nature.  Suicide.  Murder.”  Rather than focusing on the whodunit, “Grace” tells the story of how the deaths affect the town’s residents.

Frank is the 13-year-old narrator.  He is a kid who has a tendency to get into trouble.  His voice is charming.  He describes his father as “a man with a son who stuttered and another probably on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent.”  His father is the local Methodist minister.  Post-traumatic stress is delicately woven into the story.  Before his dad left for WWII, he was on his way to being a hotshot lawyer. His mother resents her husband’s change of career. She is not a believer in God, which makes for good tension in the plot.  His siblings are a Juilliard-bound teenage sister and his sweet younger brother who is bullied for having a stutter. There are pages filled with other colorful, nice and not-so-nice townspeople.  All are written with in-depth character development.  There are similarities to Stephen King’s novella, “The Body,” which later became the movie, “The Stand.”  “Grace” like “Body” is a dark read at times that can be heartbreaking but overall its message is optimistic.

Without being preachy (pun intended), the author managed to write a book filled with life lessons. At the end of the tale, Frank thinks, “Loss, once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It’s solid and can be assessed and dealt with.”  Even though the family goes through terrible experiences, his brother says, “The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”Simply said, “Grace” is a story of when bad things happen to good people and how they overcome their pain.  Krueger’s characters go through a wide range of believable and conflicting emotions.  You will laugh and cry along with them. The author’s skill in building tension, drama, and acceptance will leave the reader with a heartwarming glow.

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“Big Summer” by Jennifer Weiner

Genre: Women’s FictionBig Summer
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: May 19, 2020

Vacation primes us for the pleasure of reading light books with plots that are not too heavy or thought-provoking.  Usually, the reader just wants to unwind in the sun, the sand, and a story.  Beach books are at their best when read on a beach, which is where this reviewer read “Big Summer.”

There are two timelines in the novel, 1994 and 2018.  They do not intertwine. The prologue takes place in 1994. We meet Christina Killian, an unmarried pregnant woman.  With no financial resources, she goes to live year-round in her family’s seasonal summer cottage located on Cape Cod.  She has a son and they both thrive while living on the peninsula. When the boy is four years old, the prologue is over and the story takes a completely different turn. Christina is out of the plot.  This is a shame because her story had the makings of a good beach read.

The bulk of the story takes place in 2018 and is told in the first person. The protagonist, Daphne Berg, is a plus-sized, likable young woman with low self-esteem. The story begins when she is in the 8th grade and continues until she is in her mid-twenties. Her best friend, Drue Cavanaugh, is the opposite of her. Drue is the epitome of the character from the movie “Mean Girls.” You will wonder if you accidentally picked up a YA novel. The plot is mix-matched and all over the place. You will read about school bullying with a strong emphasis on fat shaming and the pros and cons of today’s 24/7social media culture. Throw in a rather dull romance that morphs into a completely unbelievable murder mystery.

The reader comes back to the beach when Daphne is in Drue’s Cape Cod, over-the-top wedding.  This is fun to read.  Think of the TV shows, “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Or any episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”   This is also when the story turns into a chick-lit murder mystery. And when we finally learn what happened to Christina.  Publishers put out beach books in piles for the summer.  You may want to add “Big Summer” to your pile, but not at the top.

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

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“Miracle Creek” by Angie Kim

Genre:  General Fiction/MysteryMircle Creek
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Pub. Date:  April 16, 2019

This complex novel begins with a tossed cigarette causing an explosion that kills two people in what is believed to be premeditated murder.  Still, the story can read more sci-fi than murder-mystery.   This is because of a seemingly bizarre treatment for autism.  Parents who are seeking a miracle cure take their children into a large chamber that looks like a submarine.  The families take ‘dives’ where they are exposed to high levels of pressurized oxygen.  This is an actual treatment commonly used in Asia named “hyperbaric oxygen therapy” (HBOT).  This reviewer needed to google to learn that fact.  You can even buy a chamber online.  Turns out, the author was not bending reality.  Learning this took some of the fun out of the story, but have no fear, this is a very good murder-mystery. The author is a former litigator, which makes for authentic courtroom scenes.

The story centers around a South Korean American couple and their teenage daughter who recently arrived in the United States.  They own and run a small HBOT facility.  A mother and a child, not her own, both die in the chamber due to the explosion.   The mother of the deceased child was taking a parental break and she remained outside for that fatal session. This mom has been known to show her burnout and has said, while the other mothers only thought, “Sometimes I wish my child was dead.”   For this reason, she becomes the murder defendant on trial.  But the author keeps us guessing.  Could it have been the owners, who needed the insurance money?  Or perhaps a protesting mom who does not believe in the therapy?  All the twists make for an entertaining read.  What makes the story complex are the aspects of the characters’ individual lives.  The exhaustion and depression that comes from the daily superhuman caregiving demands placed on the mothers, the difficulty of the immigrant experience, the confusion of the teen who wants to go back to Korea, despite being more American in her speech and mannerisms than her parents will ever be.  It has been reported that HBOT can help with many other medical issues; a white American doctor married to a Korean American woman participates in the dives because his wife says it will help them conceive.  He personally believes the treatments are nonsense but appeases his wife, putting himself in what he considers a humiliating position—Great tension.

Combining a murder-mystery with family issues, the immigrant experience, and the keenly felt, heart-wrenching emotions of the parents makes for an interesting use of the genre.  There is even an emphasis on the social drama provoked by different parenting beliefs.  A group of protesting moms feel those who put their kids in these chambers (which can on rare occasions be dangerous) do not accept their children as they are, and want to ‘fix’ them.  They hold signs reading “I’m a child, not a lab rat.”   In the April 2019 Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) interview, the author’s shares that her own son received HBOT treatments.  Once again, Kim uses her personal experience to create a powerful human story disguised as a legal thriller.  Kim’s courtroom drama will pose threat to any others out there.

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 New Neighbors” by Simon Lelic

Genre:          Mystery and Thrillers
Publisher:    Berkley Publishing Group
Pub. Date:    The New NeighborsApril 10, 2018

Mini Review

Why do I keep accepting Advance Review Copies (ARC) books that I suspect I will not like?  I am sure many other readers and reviewers will enjoy this novel.  For me, it is a real stinker.  Okay, I don’t think the first half of the book is so terrible.  A young couple in their twenties buys a home together.  The previous owner leaves them all his belongings.  This consists of cheerless junk and his dead stuffed pets, making the house downright creepy.  At first, I thought I was reading a haunted house story.  The author does a good job of keeping it spooky.  I also enjoyed the prose, which is an open journal that the couple is writing for each other.  Alternately, one would write a segment on what is happening to him or her in their weird home and then give it to the other to read and reply.  It did get a tad confusing; still, it is an interesting format.  I often chuckled on how the couple would see the same incident so very differently.  Think “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.”

The reader knows in the first half that the woman has toxic parents.  She had a very abusive childhood.  In the second half, we learn how and why.  She escaped her parents in her teens by running away.  Now in her adult life the parental abuse begins again. Honestly, the abuse as an adult is hard to buy.  If I explain more it would be a spoiler. However, you need to know that this reviewer was once a court-appointed Social Worker who helped put abusive parents in jail.  I have worked in the trenches with many violent families.  I tell you this so you can understand just how illogical and far-fetched the plot became.  Additionally, it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that they are reading a murder mystery.  Alas, the “who done it” is also unbelievable with predictable twists.  For all these reasons, I cannot recommend this book.  Still, you might want to give it a try.  As I said, I know many will gobble this one up.   Readers seem to love a page-turner that will keep them up all night.   I’m guessing the unrealistic feel won’t bother them.   Psychological thrillers are not my favorite genre.  But, I can enjoy a page-turner, only if they are intelligent as well as unsettling.

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“The Flight Attendant” by Chris Bohjalian

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Genre:        General Fiction (Adult)The Flight Addendant

Publisher:  Doubleday

Pub. Date:  March 13, 2018

Possible Spoiler Alert

The author, Chris Bohjalian, is one of my all-time favorite authors. I believe he is today’s Hemingway, writing American literature with an emotional force. I first discovered Bohjalian when I read his 2010 book, “Midwives.” The setting for that book is rural Vermont, known as the Northeast Kingdom (NEK). Since I spend a good deal of my year in the NEK I was delighted when I recognized the towns and the region’s customs that the author is referring to, especially when he mentions the town of Barton, which is where I summer. But even if the work was located in an unfamiliar place, I still would have loved the novel. “Midwives” blends moral, medical and political themes. “The Flight Attendant” is similar if you substitute the word “medical” with “sexual.”

Although, many of the author’s novels (and I have read them all) take place in Vermont, this one doesn’t. The sexy, flirtatious flight attendant, Cassie, lives in NYC, and her work has her traveling internationally. The protagonist is an alcoholic who is self-destructive. She is no stranger to blackouts and is accustomed to waking up in the bed of a man that she just met on the plane. But this time, when she wakes up in a Dubai hotel room, the man lying next to her is dead, she has blood in her hair, and she has no memory of what happened. Did she, or didn’t she kill him? The novel could be entitled “Confessions of a Flight Attendant,” as its filled with sex, murder, and mystery, but have no fear that you are reading rubbish; Bohjalian is too talented to write a trashy novel. And if a murder mystery is not your type of story, Bohjalian also manages to get today’s headlines into the plot, including Russian espionage, the FBI, and the CIA. His ability to weave these topics together is enjoyable. Moreover, as in all his novels, it is obvious that a good deal of research went into the writing, giving the story an authentic feel.

Unfortunately, for me, this page-turner lost most of its oomph somewhere along the way. Maybe it is because Cassie, who is now known in the news as the “Tart Cart Killer” is so self-destructive you can guess how she will sabotage any progress her lawyer makes on her case. Or maybe the surprise ending is too much of a leap for me to believe. Or maybe, and most probably, I expect the author to write a masterpiece time and time again. Although this is not my favorite of his work, I still recommend you read this book. Bohjalian is not capable of writing an uninteresting novel. He also happens to be a writer who respects his readers and reviewers. He actually, contacts me and other reviewers via the internet thanking us for reading and reviewing his work. He has been writing best sellers for over twenty years, there is no professional reason for him to do this other than that he is a nice guy who happens to be one heck of a story-teller. Enjoy the book, you will never board a plane again without wondering what your flight attendant is really like.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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