“The Last House on the Street” by Diane Chamberlain

Genre: Domestic FictionThe Last House on the Street
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: January 11, 2022

The past crimes of a community become known as two women, separated by a generation, are brought together by tragedy and a decades-old mystery.

Chamberlain does a good job of mixing up the civil rights movement and a suspenseful plot around the past and a more recent decade. The suspense story is good.  The author shines when writing on the evils of the KKK, which can be difficult to read, nevertheless, enlightening and well written.

There are two timelines in the novel: Southern, white, twenty-year-old Ellie is resolved to get active in the Civil Rights struggle by assisting African Americans in registering to vote in 1965 in the real-life project— The Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE), which was peopled by kids in college called on by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2010, architects, Kayla, and her husband build their dream home in North Carolina, which is where Kayla’s father and Ellie both grew up. Before they move in the husband dies. After much deliberation, Kayla decides that she and their young daughter should move into the house. However, once they are in someone is trying to scare them out.  The twists were decent.

In the powerful and moving earlier timeline, Chamberlain reminds her readers that the KKK was everywhere not just in the Deep South. This part of the story was heartbreaking to read and I real eye-opener to those of us who only know about cross-burning and lynching through old newspaper stories. In this reviewer’s opinion, the 1965 timeline is more than enough to keep the reader’s interest.  The 2010 timeline was not needed other than to attract readers who enjoy suspense.

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

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“All Girls” by Emily Layden

All Girls

Genre:/Literary Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: Feb. 16, 2021

Mini-Review

This novel is marketed for fans, which I am, of Curtis Sittenfeld’s, “Prep.” That novel is set in an American boarding school, “a hotbed of privilege, ambition, and neurosis, every bit as snobbish and competitive as anything dreamed up on this side of the Atlantic”. … Google Books.  That pretty much sums up “All Girls” but, add in a sexual assault of a former student by a male teacher that took place twenty years ago.  The girl is now a woman, who wants revenge on the school for kicking her out and covering up the teacher’s crime. The girls in the present, attempt to figure out who the teacher was so the story morphs into a mystery. The reader will follow nine students, which would have been okay if the author had spent time on their character development.  However, this is not the case. Each character comes and goes so quickly that there is no time to be acquainted with them. It is easy to get lost on who is who. This is a shame because the novel has much potential. Layden does such a good job of capturing boarding school female teenage angst. With a good editor, “All Girls” would then read more like “Prep.”

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“The Wife” by Shalini Boland

 

Itsy-Bitsy Review                                      The Wife

The story is told going back and forth in time (a style of writing that I usually like). This domestic thriller centers on a young woman who faints on her wedding day. She remembers nothing that happened before she fainted. The wedding goes on. Ten years later, on her wedding anniversary, she remembers. This is an easy, boring read that this reviewer found unbelievable. I probably would have enjoyed the novel a bit more if I read it on a beach.

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“The Holdout” by Graham Moore

Genre:  Mystery & ThrillersThe Holdout
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Feb. 18, 2020

Let me start off by saying I was surprised that I was disappointed in this book. Not because other reviewers gave “Holdout” five stars. (I don’t actually read other reviews on a book until I have finished my own to ensure that I am not influenced. But, I do check out the stars).  The discrepancy between my review and others did not surprise me, because I often disagree with my peers.  I was surprised to be disappointed because the last two books that I read and reviewed by Moore were both superior historical fiction courtroom dramas and historical fiction is my favorite genre.   In “Last Days of Night,” George Westinghouse takes on Thomas Edison in the battle over the light bulb patent.  And, in “The Imitation Game” Alan Turing, the famous mathematician who cracked Nazi codes goes on trial because of his homosexuality, which sadly was against the law during those years.  The focuses on both these books were on the long-forgotten, fascinating historical facts, not really the trials. And both novels blew me away.  Since “Holdout” is a courtroom drama only; I guess for me, it was doomed to be a less stellar of a read than the author’s earlier books.

In this book, a young woman is on a jury for a murder trial.  A black man is accused of killing his white teenage student.  Our protagonist manages to convince the others to acquit the defendant, who were not as positive as she was on his innocence.   Since the jurors are sequestered they have no idea how much hard evidence there is against the defendant.  Once home, the jurors’ lives are forever changed since there is an outcry of fury since it seemed obvious to the world that they freed a guilty man. Up until here, I am okay with the plot.  Now fast forward ten years.   There is a reunion where one male juror has the others get together since he supposedly has new evidence on the decade-old crime.  First issues, why in the world would they want to relive this episode since the trial’s aftermath just about ruined their lives.  In the present, during the reunion this male juror is murdered (no spoiler here).  The prime suspect is our female protagonist.  Oh please.  She is now a defense lawyer herself and does a lot of her own research. Second, oh please.  Is this me or is this a cheesy plot?

I have other issues with the novel.  The male juror’s death is central to the story, yet it doesn’t happen till near the end of the tale.  Plus, after his death, the other jurors come to a very hard-to-believe solution on how to handle explaining his death to the authorities.  If I say more it will be a spoiler. On the other hand, there are lots of good twists at the end of the book, which did bring my attention back to the tale, but it is too little too late. It is hard for me to understand how the author who wrote “Night” and “Game” is the same person who penned “Holdout.” Maybe, my disappointment is on me.  Still, how can a decent legal thriller possibly compete with the true-life courtroom dramas regarding famous and brilliant men that changed history? Simply no competition.

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“Chances Are…” by Richard Russo

Genre:  Literary Mystery
Publisher:  Knopf DoubledayChances Are
Publication Date:  July 30, 2019

The new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo is about the complexities of male friendship. This is not a new theme for the author.  Here written with his trademark humor, Russo introduces us to three male Vietnam-era college friends who are now in their mid-sixties.   They are having a weekend reunion together on Martha’s Vineyard.  Think Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”  It was there that they had a last-hoorah weekend after graduating from college and going on their separate ways.  The difference between the weekends is that in 1970 they also had a female friend with them.  All three were in love with her.  The book’s title comes from the singer Johnny Mathis: “Chances are cause I wear a silly grin, the moment you come into view…”  The girl has now been missing for over 40 years.  This reviewer was expecting to read a novel focusing on friendships and growing older.  The mystery part surprised me. (I never read the book blurb since I would read anything by Russo).

The novel is told from each of the male characters’ viewpoints. One becomes financially successful, another is broken in multiple ways, and the third still plays in his rock and roll band.  Russo’s style is similar to the author Elizabeth Strout in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge.” Both are stellar at connecting the reader to ordinary people who are living through their wounds as well as their joys.  The suspense of the mystery is good, but the ending is a bit of a disappointment.   When we learn what happened to the missing girl, the explanation is hard to buy, especially considering the bond between the men.  Saying more would be a spoiler.  Still, the rich descriptions of Russo’s classic “Empire Falls” can be found in “Chances.”  His flawed but decent male characters show us the best of men.  Once you finish the book, it hard not to reflect on your own life, especially if you are in your sixties, as I am. The author’s clarity and insight make “Chances” a thought-provoking and page-turning read.

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“The Visitor” by Ti Ca

Genre:          Family Drama/MysteryThe Visitor
Publisher:    Patritus LLC
Pub. Date:    Jan 6, 2019

This is my first novel from BookSirens, which is an Amazon connected book directory for Advance Review Copies (ARC) of books.  I do not usually read Indie authors or Amazon/Kindle First Reads.  Some can be quite good, but I simply have too many books to read and review on my “to be read list.”  My lists are filled with my preferred literary genres, written by my favorite powerhouse authors.    Nor am I usually a fan of best sellers.  Yes, I can be a book snob.  This is why I don’t usually explore books outside of my comfort zone.  I am glad that I did so with “The Visitor.”  I found this character-driven novella to be a sophisticated mystery that includes aging and memory loss, as well as a father-son story about poverty and education.

The story is narrated in the first person by two protagonists:   An elderly woman alone in her home waiting for her husband to return from the store, and the visitor, who is a stranger, but clearly wants to help this woman.   Who is in dire need of help.  We meet them both on Christmas Eve.  Her “furnace has gone out, the breaker needs to be reset, and the cupboards lie empty.”  It is clear that the woman has a failing memory.  “Visitor” has hints of the novel “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey, whose heroine has Alzheimer’s.  There is a tragedy to be found in both of these novels.

Though I don’t believe that “Visitor” is located in Appalachia, I also find elements of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir” by J.D. Vance.  And “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover.  Both books have the same theme that can be found in “Visitor”—overcoming the cruelty of poverty and severe family dysfunction through one’s thirst to learn.  Plus, the father-son part of “Visitor” reminds me of “The Kite Runner.”  Ca is in with good company.

It took me a while to figure out who the mysterious stranger is, or who the librarian is, and how they are connected to the old woman.   I was delighted that the author was able to keep me wondering.  But go in knowing that “Visitor” is sometimes written in a confusing manner.  The author weaves together the underlying sub-plots of past and present timelines a little too abruptly, especially when switching into the third person.  Still, I found the novella interesting enough to go back and re-read the parts where I felt confused.  In this book, what really hooked me is that the author asks the questions:  What exactly is family love?  How do we handle tragedy? Why do some people rise above rather than fall into, the clutches of poverty? Though “Visitor” is not in the same class as the other books I mention, I still recommend you give it a try.  It is a good Indie read.

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“The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt” by Andrea Bobotis

Genre:           Southern Literary Fiction/Mysterythe last list
Publisher:    Sourcebooks Landmark
Pub.  Date:   July 9, 2019

This novel has such a crisp Southern voice that the reader will be surprised that the book is a debut novel.   The author, Andrea Bobotis, is no stranger to good writing.   She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia.  Her fiction has received awards from the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.  The novel is based in a fictional town in South Carolina (Bobotis is a native of South Carolina) and splits its time between1989 and 1929.  The author interweaves the moving timelines throughout the novel without missing a heartbeat.   Miss Judith Kratt is a white woman now aged into her late seventies.  She is the eldest daughter in the family.  The Kratts were once the most powerful family in a cotton town that they owned.   Now their once-stately home, as well as the town, is falling apart.  She lives in her family home with her black companion, Olva.   Judith views her relationship with Olva as part family member, part friend, and part housemaid.   Judith is writing her last list, which is made up of family heirlooms.  The writing can move at a slow, Southern pace, but is never boring.  In the present, through Judith’s memories, we learn of her family’s dark secrets.  Some you will be able to guess.  Others you will not.

There are similarities in “The Last List” to the novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.”  Both books are narrated by the protagonist through the time period changes.  They both explore the themes of the segregated south, family, aging, male brutality towards females, and the dehumanizing effects of racism.  Still, both tales give the reader demonstrations of female strength while also managing to squeeze in some humor.    Judith is a quirky one.   It is fun to read how Olva, who is one year older than Judith, deals with her companion’s eccentric ways.  “The Last List” is obviously racially charged.   It is sad to realize that these same racial tensions are still around in the year 2019.  It can make one feel weary. Still, the author does a good job of capturing the aspects of what can be called the genteel South and its sweet southern style.  But make no mistake, the book is truly about the ugly truth hidden behind those grand Southern mansions.  After most chapters, the inventory grows.  Each listed item is cleverly written to connect to the story-line.  Bobotis does an excellent job in these thought-provoking connections.  Possibly, the author created the list to challenge the reader to examine the imprints of their own memories.   And to acknowledge the unfair power that comes from the objects (or once people) that we own, begging the question:  Will we ever truly live in a world of equality?   The story may read slowly, but it is a page-turner.

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“Lie With Me” by Sabine Durrant

Genre:        Mystery & Psychological Thriller Lie with me
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pub. Date: January 11, 2018

Have you ever told a lie? Most of us have. The question in this psychological thriller is guessing who is telling the truth and who is lying. I don’t think I just wrote a spoiler because the reader will wonder this for him/herself relatively early in the novel. This is an unusual thriller. I would even venture to say that this is a work of literary fiction. Usually, mysteries and psychological thrillers are written in a rapid pace. “Lie With Me” reads slow. Since I enjoy the slower pace of foreign movies, the novel is a good fit for me. Think the 1994 French film, “Léon: The Professional.”

Paul is a character in this book who is a major loser. Jobless at age 40, he moves back home to live with his mom. Paul tells so many lies he confuses them. He can forget what is true and what is false. He has written one novel in his youth and twenty years later he is still trying to hang onto his 15-minutes of fame. He meets an old college friend who is ultra-rich. Through him, Paul meets Alice, who is also ultra-rich and another member of the 1%. Paul is fascinated with them and their lifestyles. He tells some whopper lies to Alice, becomes her reluctant beau and worms his way into their annual Greek holiday. He seems to have the notion that somehow they will transform him into a good person living the good life, (as Leon the character played by actor, Jean Reno, hoped the child would transform him.) The reader is aware that he wants to be Cinderella. We also know that Paul is a pathological liar—but is he a murderer? The author, Sabine Durrant, gives deliberately confusing hints to the reader when she goes back and forth in time.

Durrant has written a different kind of beach read, one that begins and ends with a lie. The novel’s development comes from the characters rather than the plot, which I enjoy. My only issue is that about three quarters through, I did figure out the truth. There was (at least for me) no big ending twist. It was the author’s writing style that kept my interest to want to finish.

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“Father Figure” by James J. Cudney

father-figure-main-fileGenre:             Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:      Creativia Publishing House
Pub. Date:      April 2, 2018

Picture a story that cuts between two teenage girls living in very different places and times, without explaining their relationship to the reader.  This is just the puzzle that the author, James J. Cudney, goes for and solves.  One heroine lives in the Deep South, in a shoddy town in Mississippi.  She grows up with an abusive mother, that I promise you will hate.   The other girl lives in hip NYC, the Big Apple.   She grows up with a loving mother who you will like and admire.  She is a wonderful mom even though she struggles with single mom issues such as financial strain, social isolation, exhaustion, and guilt.   You will wonder why this lovely mom keeps secrets from her daughter.  Both girls go off to college in Pennsylvania where their young adult lives begin.  However, first, the author teases us with a few pages of the mystery that the reader is about to be swept up in.

The story goes back and forth in time.  We meet the sweet and completely naïve Southern girl in 1984.  How she remains such a nice person while living with daily abuse is another mystery for this reviewer.  As a retired social worker, I wish her personality traits could be bottled to be shared with real life abuse survivors.  You will fall in love with her.  Then we meet the feisty and rebellious Northern girl in the year 2004.  The city teen does not realize how good her life is because her constant focus is on wondering who her father is.  Her mom refuses to say a word.   Choosing to write this tale from past and present in alternating chapters keeps with the plot’s main mystery: just what is the connection between the young women?

Cudney does a great job of nailing female teenage angst, especially since one of the girls is struggling with her sexual identity.  I am thinking of one particular scene where this girl decides to lose her virginity to help her decide whether she is gay or straight.  The author has a nice little twist here, which I never saw coming.  I will not spoil your pleasure by discussing the other shockers.  But, I will share that I did guess the link regarding one of the mothers, although it took me awhile.   Here is my own teaser: there might be more than one father figure in this book, but whom?  I hope I am leaving you purposely confused.

For me as a woman, this book was particularly interesting because of the insight it gave into the young female psyche who want nothing more than to experience a mutual adoring relationship with their dads.

FF image

Not many male writers can achieve success in writing in a teen female voice.  I enjoy that the city girl does not try to be a “good girl” (though deep down I feel that she really is).  Although the characters can feel a bit too one-sided, being all good or all bad, this is a fine family saga page-turner.   I didn’t get that feeling of “not another YA book posing as an adult work of fiction.”  Expect your emotions to be all over the place.  You will read enough abusive horrors, in more ways than one.   Be prepared to cry.   There are also enough moments of love to put a smile on your face, and enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  When all is said and done, the novel has a real Agatha Christie feel to it.  I recommend “Father Figure” to all who enjoy contemporary fiction filled with twists.

The author has given a copy of his book to me for an honest review.   I have been in friendly contact with him through our book blogs and Goodreads, but in no way does this influence my review.

“Father Figure” is on Amazon at:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BW77CWQ?tag=creati0a5-20

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In The Shadow of Lakecrest” Elizabeth Blackwell

Pub. Date:   February 1, 2017shadow

Historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I am not sure why this book is labeled as historical fiction.    Although the story takes place in the 1920s, I didn’t see any history in the plot (except for references of flappers.)  The story revolves around a poor young woman, with a shady past.  She marries a rich man that she meets while she is employed as a governess.  It turns out that her hubby’s family is just as shady as hers.

“Lakecrest” has potential.  The heroine’s new home is an creepy isolated old mansion, complete with scary gargoyles.  She inherits a mysterious unwelcoming new family with a mother-in-law from hell.  She learns that her gentleman husband has his own demons.

This could have been a good psychological thriller with a Gothic “Rebbeca” theme, but the writing is dull and not believable.   I know I am telling and not showing which makes for a boring book review, maybe my review is emulating the book, a Gothic wannabe that poses as historical fiction.

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