“A Hundred Suns” by Karin Tanabe

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionA hundred suns
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

This historical fiction has moments of greatness. The story is set in Indochina during the late 1920s and the early 1930s. If you are a history buff, you will be delighted to know that this reviewer learned much about Indochina, the French Colony in Vietnam. Unlike any schoolbook, Tanabe makes you feel as if you are there with the ‘coolies’ during their long, impossibly hard workday.   The anti-colonialist roots of communism are captured in the abject poverty of the Vietnamese and the abundance of wealth and luxurious living conditions of the French who ruled and lived in Indochina. The author gave me the gift of detailed knowledge. Thanks to “Suns,” I finally have a better understanding of how the Martin Sheen character in “Apocalypse Now” could go from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam to having an elaborate dinner there, while being waited on by servants, with a wealthy French family who insist that Vietnam is their home.

The tale revolves around an American wife who marries a Frenchman who is a member of the Michelin dynasty. The famous family is a major part of the story. In real life, the Michelin brothers organized two Indochinese rubber plantations in 1925, where they operated until the end of the Vietnam War. The author does a thorough job regarding less known information about the Michelins. Surprisingly, at least for me, the family is painted as part of the wealthy imperialists who cannot understand the pain of the underprivileged. The quality of life for their workers read as horrendous.  Since I have always smiled at the image of “The Michelin Man,” I looked for proof of Tanabe’s descriptions.  I found them to be true.  On just one Michelin-owned plantation, 17,000 deaths were recorded in the 20 years between the two World Wars. “Suns” is written so the reader will sympathize with the communist Vietnamese. The author has the ability to make one question what you learned in school. I will never again read a “Michelin-Star Rated Restaurant Guide” without thinking of how their rubber and money was made.

Turns out, the novel is also written as a psychological thriller regarding the American wife. She has a history of mental illness. The author presents this as an “Or does she?” type of situation.  I didn’t mind this component of the novel at all. It did not interfere with the history.  I actually found it intriguing. My issue is that romance finds its way into the plot. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that this genre is historical fiction as well as women’s fiction, something I do not usually care for. So my disappointment is on me for not carefully looking over the genre before choosing the novel.  My only strong criticism is that Tanabe did not have endnotes. True facts make historical fiction feel authentic and give the author credibility.  However, this may be due to the fact that I read an Advanced Review Copy and the citations may come once the book is published.  Still overall, I enjoyed this novel very much and recommend it.  The entire plot revolving around the history of Vietnam during those years is powerfully written.  And the thriller part is clever.  Plus, if you enjoy women’s fiction this will be a win-win book for you.

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 Escape Room” by Megan Goldin

Genre:          Mystery and ThrillersThe Escape Room
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:    July 30, 2019

A publicist from St. Martin’s Press contacted me to read and review this book, which I find hard to review.  The plot is simple and predictable, not to mention implausible.   The twist is a cinch to figure out and yet, interestingly, I enjoyed the story.   Possibly, this is because most of the story could be straight out of the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” which I, and most moviegoers, thoroughly enjoyed.  (If you are too young to know the film, google it).

I would say that the book is more a psychological thriller than a mystery. The novel reveals the cut-throat world of Wall Street corporate finance, where greed and corruption rule.   Four hot-shot financial dealers work and live in a world of million-dollar salaries—designer everything.  We are talking $11,000 for a pocketbook to be bought in numerous colors.  And all four would turn on their grandmother to ensure they keep their million-dollar salaries.  Think of the character Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.”  Gekko says to the young new financial advisor, “The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”  And these four have done some horrible things to ensure they have numerous $10,000 wristwatches.  I thought the author did overkill in writing about their ridiculous spending habits but she proved her point.  These four coworkers, who you will love to hate, are summoned into an elevator in the belief that they are engaging in some sort of team-building exercise.  The reader knows from the prologue that bullet shots are heard from the elevator.  It is not a team-building experience but a revenge plot against the four.

There are two timelines in the novel told in the first and third person.  The four characters trapped in the elevator are told in the third person.  The second timeline follows a young woman who graduated at the top of her class with an MBA.  She sacrifices food and all her savings to buy an interview suit to look the part for a job in a top-tier finance company.  She gets the job and works as the bottom link with the hot-shots.  Her narrative is a bit boring.  The author clearly wants a good vs. evil theme so, I guess, she is needed to have a moral character in the story.  What kept my attention, even when things got a bit tedious, is just how horrible the other four actually are.  How far would they go to ensure their hefty bonuses?   This one is unquestionably movie material.  If you go in knowing the novel’s flaws, you will be able to enjoy the elevator ride.

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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.

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

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“Baby Teeth” by Zoje Stage

Genre:          Mystery and Thriller  baby teeth
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:    July 17, 2018

The book is marketed as a “We Need to Talk About Kevin” meets “Gone Girl” meets “The Omen.”   I am not always a fan of commercial fiction, but since I enjoyed both books and liked the movie “The Omen,” I assumed I would enjoy “Baby Teeth.”  Well, I was wrong.   The story is about a disturbing little girl that wishes her mother dead so she can have her father all to herself.   There is suspense at first, but soon chilling turns into repetition, which makes for a boring book.  Just how many times do you want to read about a child viciously attacking her mother?  Or, read about a father who ignores, or plays down his daughter’s behavior?

bad seed

The story attempts to emulate the 1956 movie, “The Bad Seed,” which is also melodramatic storytelling.   In “Teeth” the reader is left wondering just what is wrong with the parents and especially the little girl.  Is she mentally ill, does she have multiple personalities, is she a witch?   This tale shocks for shock purposes only.  There are a lot of good thrillers out there.  Don’t bother with this one.

Open link to purchase on Amazon.

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

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“Girl Unknown” by Karen Perry

Genre:         (General Fiction) AdultGirl Unkown
Pub. Date:   Feb. 6, 2018
Publisher:    Henry Holt and Co.

This book is marketed as general fiction, but I feel it is a psychological thriller, as it appears to be with all books that have the word “girl” in the title.  The reader will meet a family consisting of husband, wife and two children, a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.  I liked the fact that the author did not present this Irish family as perfect.  Both parents have secrets from one another.  They certainly have their troubles, but the parents work hard on making their marriage work.   They do love one another and want the best for their children.  The father is a college professor.   In his first-year class, a 19-year-old female student informs him that he is her father from a relationship he had before he married.  The reader already knows that this girl’s mother is the true love of his life.

He accepts the girl into his world right away.  He is rather naïve in thinking he can easily integrate this daughter into his established family.  As the reader expects, almost immediately problems arise.  The novel is narrated by the husband and wife.  As the title indicates, this girl is an unknown variable in their lives.  She has more of her own secrets than this family ever had.  She seems to take pleasure in causing conflict, usually ending with the females in the family seeing her as a narcissistic person enjoying the drama she creates, while the males feel she is a troubled person who needs their support.  I imagine that this book is advertised as general fiction since it reads like a family drama and a character study.  Grant you, an easy character study that is a quick read: a beach book that will probably become a movie.

Half-way through the tale, due to the stressors, all family members begin to crumble.   Both parents have major setbacks in their careers as well as in their personal lives.  The son is acting out in school, while the 11-year-old daughter has become withdrawn.   But it is during a family vacation in France that all hell breaks loose.   I would ruin the story for you if I explain why.  The previous twists in the book were predictable, easy to find since the family dynamics became rather warped.  However, the twist on the last page of the novel did surprise me.   It actually left me wanting to know more, wondering what will happen now, which tells me that “Unknown” is a decent read after all.

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 Things Cease To Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

So many different thoughts went through my mind while reading this novel.  First, I All Things Cease To Appearresigned myself to read another contemporary thriller (not my fav) that needs to be reviewed.  Then early in the book I thought “this is very well written,” more literary than bestseller-like.   Next, the story became Gothic, a genre I do enjoy.  Plus, it also has a noir feel which is another genre that I love to get lost in.  So, to my surprise, I am pleased that I read this book.  It is not until the very end of the story that I find criticism with the tale. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a short chapter describing an old farmhouse and all the people that once lived there.  The first family that we meet is a married couple with three sons trying to keep the farm alive in horrendous conditions born from poverty.  The parents die in the house and the boys are left orphaned.  The next family who moves into the house is a young married couple with a little girl.  They buy the farmhouse for almost nothing since it went into foreclosure.  The town’s people held that against the young couple.  The new owners are city people who move to the country for the husband’s job as a professor at a small college.  The “whodunit begins in the first chapter when the professor comes home from work and finds his wife murdered in her bed.  The three sons who first lived in the farmhouse are in all other chapters of the book.

There are no quotation marks anywhere in the novel.  The author expects the reader to be smart enough to know who said what.    I enjoyed this style of writing it keeps me on their toes.   There are many characters in this book that can feel overwhelming, but they are tied together nicely, and I enjoyed each one’s part in the plot.   It read similar to “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, where the characters were interconnected short stories.   In addition, the author adds a large dose of irony into her novel.  The professor’s boss is a big fan of Emanuel Swedberg who is best known for his book on the afterlife, “Heaven and Hell” written in 1758.

The last chapter focuses on the little girl who is now all grown up and in her last stages of  training to become a surgeon.  The reason why the ending is a bit of a disappointment for me is that I thought the author was attempting to add romance into the plot.  In hindsight, it may have been karma (if I explain it would be a spoiler).   Still, all in all, this is a literary spellbinding page-turner that is a ghost story, as well as a psychological thriller.   Was I displeased with the ending? Yes, that is true.  Did I need to sleep with the lights on?  Yes, that is also true.  Read the book and see if you cease to appear.

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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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“Eileen” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen was released in 2015, so I was surprised wheneileen I was offered an Advanced Review Copy (ARC).  I assume I received this book so that the author, Ottessa Moshfegh, receives publicity for her latest book, Homesick for Another World.  No matter.  I am glad I was given an ARC, for Eileen is one heck of a book, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and winner of the PEN/Hemingway debut fiction award.  Eileen is dark.  It is the darkest version of a dark comedy.   It is a literary psychology thriller except unlike most in this genre, the thrill is not in the plot, but in the language.

The story is narrated in the first person when Eileen is an old woman telling us about a time in her life when she was 24-years old.  She was a rather dull young woman in appearance as well as in personality.  Although the year was 1964, there was nothing hip about Eileen, there were no go-go boots in her closet.  Eileen was anorexic and hid herself in her deceased mother’s matronly clothes.  She had mousy brown hair held in place with a childish barrette and wore a mousy brown coat everywhere.  She went to college for a year and a half, was called home to take care of her dying mother and never went back to school.  She continued to live at home with her alcoholic father who did not leave the house.  He was an ex-cop who was verbally abusive to his daughter.  Their only interactions came when she made her daily trip to the liquor store to keep him in his continuous gin stupor.  She had no girlfriends and never had a boyfriend though she longed for both. Clearly, Eileen had a boring life as well as a boring appearance.  She may at first seem like a predictable character, but the reader learns making any assumptions about Eileen would be dead wrong.

Eileen was an extremely odd young woman.  Her good luck charm was a dead mouse in her broken down car’s glove compartment.   She worked at a boy’s juvenile correctional facility.  She had no empathy for the boys even though she could see they were being abused.  She most likely had a sociopathic personality and hated everyone including herself.  Still, it is hard to hate Eileen.  She was so lonely and only cared about escaping her life in a small New England town.  Her dream was to run away to New York City.  Being a thriller, of course, there is a crime that involves her escape plan (a crime that I cannot mention in this review as it is the big secret in the novel.)  When a young attractive woman was hired at the correctional facility Eileen made her very first friend.  It was her friend that initiated the soon to happen mysterious crime.   It is not the crime scenes that you will find so interesting, but rather it is watching Eileen’s psychological unraveling.  This book is not for everyone, but if you like sinister character studies, you will enjoy Eileen.

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“Fractured” by Catherine McKenzie

fractured

Pub. Date: Oct., 4 2016

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

This psychological thriller is narrated by a female (once a lawyer) author who has written a bestselling novel about a perfect murder, and her male (out of work) neighbor who has a crush on her.  Both protagonists are supposedly happily married and frequently socialize together.   But in this type of story, nothing is as it appears to be.

The author and her family move into a neighborhood reminiscent of the “Stepford Wives”.  She clearly does not fit in.  The reason for their move is because she is being stalked by a law school classmate of hers.  The stalking begins once her book is published.  Rumors fly that the author based her novel on her own life as a law student, before she became a writer.  Back in her school days, she and her law school buddies were known to play a game that involved creating the perfect murder.  The game abruptly stops when one fellow student dies, causing the future author suspicion.

In the present time, the stalker is accusing the author of being the murderer of that student because of the book’s story line.   Adding another twist to the plot, in the writer’s odd new community, a tragedy happens, which involves the author and her male neighbor.   This is the book’s big teaser, hinted at from the start.  The story is not linear as it goes back and forth in time.  Catherine McKenzie, the author of “Fractured,” is effective in building suspense as she hops back and forth in time.

My only criticism with this book is that the ending did not seem believable, leaving this reviewer feeling unsatisfied.   Still, all the characters felt real, engaging me throughout the story.  I felt anxious to learn how it all would turn out, which of course is a sign of a good nail-biter.   If you enjoy the popular author Liane Moriarty, this novel is for you.

“Interference” by Amelie Antoine

 

interference

Pub. Date:  September 1, 2016

Publisher :  Amazon Crossing

I read this story in one night.  Not because I was so intrigued with the plot, but rather that this book is a very easy read.  We have three narrators, a deceased wife (that was interesting), her husband, and his potential new love.  Psychological thrillers are not my favorite genre but I can enjoy a good one that is well written.  The twists in this tale were simply not believable.  For me this was an okay read on a sleepless night, but I’m sure others might find the story-line of a not so perfect (perfect couple) a better fit for them.