“Godspeed” by Nickolas Butler

Genre: Literary Fiction Godspeed
Publisher: Putna
Pub. Date: July 27, 2021

This book is difficult to review because the pace is often slow. Still, it picks up in places, almost feeling like a thriller. At both speeds, it draws the reader into a story about friendship, addiction, class, and greed. It centers around three blue-collar buddies in their forties who start a construction company together. They’re just scraping by when a wealthy woman offers them a contract to finish her trophy house in the mountains. They’ll earn a big sum, including a sizable bonus, if they can finish it in her four-month deadline. The hitch is that it’s nearly impossible considering the amount of work involved. They begin the project knowing that they will almost certainly incur exhaustion and physical injuries.

Godspeed” brims with insights into the politics of rural gentrification. As the townies rage at the influx of affluence into their small community, we see how stronger forces work against them. The mystery surrounding the trophy house’s previous contractors, as well as the purpose behind the four-month deadline, create further tension for the protagonists still. But even with all this conflict to explore, Butler sometimes dwells, too often, on the beauty of the house and countryside at the exclusion of his characters. The descriptions are lovely, but after a while, they get tedious.

A few of the book’s plot twists seem modeled after those of a thriller novel. There was good suspense however, Butler is stronger when focusing on the complexities of working-class male friendships, especially in the setting of physically-demanding work. He ensures that the reader comprehends what construction work really means. I have a newfound admiration for people who work outside with their hands. I also found the woman footing the house’s construction compelling, and wish Butler did more to develop her. Still, the novel succeeds as a story about the haves and have-nots. A couple of the twists are over the top, but the novel’s core message rarely suffers. Whether it’s leaning too hard into its genre trappings, or its physical descriptions of the mountains, “Godspeed” always manages to keep us thinking about survival, and what we’re willing to sacrifice in an unequal world.

Personal note: If you read this book, am I the only one who thought that this novel was more than a thriller.

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 Stowaway” by James S. Murray

Genre: Mystery & ThrillersThe Stowaway
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: September 21, 2021

Professor Maria Fontana was the one juror who changed the verdict that set an alleged serial killer free. Maria is written as a likable and endearing character that you will root for. The author does a good job of showing the believable harassment that the jurors experienced after the trial. At first, they receive anonymous notes. Then photographs of those that were murdered are left at their doors. Finally, verbal attacks turn into physical attacks. Maria begins to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder due to these attacks. She and her family go on a cruise to help her cope and begin to heal. Here is where the author lost me because the story morphs into a rather predictable thriller on the cruise. An unusual ending twist saves the novel from a poor review.

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“The Truth About Melody Browne” by Lisa Jewell

Genre: Domestic Fiction SuspenseThe Truth about Melody
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub. Jan. 26, 2021

Mini-Review

This novel had me until it lost me. The story revolves around Melody Browne.  At the age of nine years old, her house burns down. The fire not only took her home but all of her childhood memories. The story goes back and forth in time.  In the present, Melody is in her early thirties. She is a single mom living with her almost 18-year old son.   Before his birthday, she begins to get flashbacks of her youth, which are filled with Dickson-like tragedy.  She is very confused by these flashbacks.  She is anxious to understand what is going on. The author’s writing makes the reader also eager to fill in the gaps of Melody’s past that have as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese.  There are some good twists in those holes as Melody, in bits and pieces, regains her memory. Nevertheless, once I reached the end of the novel, the story-line lost me.  The author wraps her tale up with a bow.  Worse, the novel begins to have a chick-lit rather than suspense feel. The ending needed much more meat on its bones to be fulfilling. A friend wanted to know my thoughts on this novel.  I would say that I am glad that I read the book because Melody’s life is a moving story of a child who needed to disassociate her past to keep her sanity.

“The Truth About Melody Browne” by Lisa Jewell

Genre: Domestic Fiction Suspense

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Jan. 26, 20

Mini-Review

This novel had me until it lost me. The story revolves around Melody Browne.  At the age of nine years old, her house burns down. The fire not only took her home but all of her childhood memories. The story goes back and forth in time.  In the present, Melody is in her early thirties. She is a single mom living with her almost 18-year old son.   Before his birthday, she begins to get flashbacks of her youth, which are filled with Dickson-like tragedy.  She is very confused by these flashbacks.  She is anxious to understand what is going on. The author’s writing makes the reader also eager to fill in the gaps of Melody’s past that have as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese.  There are some good twists in those holes as Melody, in bits and pieces, regains her memory. Nevertheless, once I reached the end of the novel, the story-line lost me.  The author wraps her tale up with a bow.  Worse, the novel begins to have a chick-lit rather than suspense feel. The ending needed much more meat on its bones to be fulfilling. A friend wanted to know my thoughts on this book.  I would say that I am glad that I read the book because Melody’s life is a moving story of a child who needed to disassociate her past to keep her sanity. Still, the book could have used some editing, which would have made for a better 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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“Temper” by Layne Fargo

Genre: Mystery & ThrillersTemper
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Pub. Date: July 2, 2019

In this book, the theater is written as a bloody place on and off the stage, though I’m not sure why it is marketed as a mystery and thriller. It is more of a psychological drama. Think of a less kinky “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Or a not as well written version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” In a Chicago community theater, you will meet Malcolm. He is one of the theater’s co-founders, director and always one of the play’s main characters. Fargo does a good job of portraying Malcolm as a darkly charismatic creep. He has a reputation of being a merciless director doing whatever it takes for his fellow actors to give the performance he wants from them. Then there is Kira. She is the actress who finally lands the role of a lifetime in a two-person play. Guess who is her director as well as her costar?

Do you know what the term knap means in the theater? I didn’t until this novel. During a slap scene, one of the actors whacks a part of their body so the audience hears the sound of skin hitting skin. The purpose is so that no actor actually gets hurt—except when one is working with Malcolm. Kira is supposed to pretend to slap him in the face and do the knap on her bare thigh, which is not in the audience’s view. He makes her rehearse the scene for hours in a row. So she, herself, black and blues her thigh. One of her ex-boyfriends sees the massive purple bruise and angrily asks, “Did he do this?” The author is clever here. What can she say, “no, I did it to myself.” Of course not, she would sound like a fool. So instead of answering, she changes the topic by seducing him. Fargo gives Malcolm many other nasty tricks up his sleeve. He invites another of Kira’s ex-boyfriends to the opening-night rehearsal without filling her in. The purpose is to bring out her old rage at the man so she can use it in the play. No “red room,” but still lots of punishment.

If those two weren’t enough to keep the reader busy, Fargo adds in the character of Joanna. She is the other co-founder of the theater, its manager and Malcolm’s roommate. She is also his enabler. Joanna has always wanted his sole attention and views the actress as a threat. Did I mention that for over a decade she has sexually longed for him? They sleep in the same bed but do not have sex. Did I mention that the sexual tension between Malcolm and Kira is through the roof: Nothing happening between them either. Though Kira does have sex with her bi-sexual male roommate, and Joanna does have sex with another woman, and Malcolm is having sex with every other woman in the Chicago but those two —“Payton Place” 2019.

Clearly, Malcolm is the bad boy and these two women bend to his wishes. I’m guessing there are no “pink hats” in either Kira’s or Joanna’s wardrobe. This doesn’t really fly in today’s MeToo times but it does make for a decent psychological suspense story. “Temper,” is the kind of book you read just to be entertained. No real thinking required.  There are better ones out there. Still, I did appreciate Fargo’s surgeon-like precision with her characters. I bet if I read this one in the summer on a beach I may have enjoyed it more. If you are looking for a quick read with lots of twists, then I recommend Fargo’s debut novel.

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“Secrets of Eden” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:         Psychological FictionSecrets of Eden
Publisher:    Broadway Books
Pub. Date:   2010

Wanting a quick break from Advanced Review Copies (ARCs), I decided to read a 2010 novel by Chris Bohjailian.  He is one of my preferred authors of page-turners.  In “Midwives,” one of my favorite novels, Bohalian crafts a courtroom drama that investigates an impossible decision made by a midwife who lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   In “The Double Bind,” he weaves together the world of “The Great Gatsby” and the lives of his current day Vermont characters.  This results in a spellbinding tale of tension.   “Eden” is a decent read but doesn’t have the literary chops shown in Bohjalian’s other suspense novels.  It lacks the powerful writing that makes the reader want to read quickly to learn the ending.  Unlike “Midwives” and “Bind,” the characters aren’t intriguing enough to make one want to jump into the book to meet them.

“Eden” is also a psychological thriller that is once again located in rural Vermont.    The author takes on the subject of domestic violence.  We meet a couple in a troubled marriage that ends in an apparent (or was it?) murder-suicide.  This happens soon after the wife is baptized in a river. The story is narrated by the four protagonists:  the town’s reverend, the prosecutor, a female author whose own parents died in a murder-suicide, and the dead couple’s teenage daughter.  The reverend is an interesting character.  The reader is not always sure what to make of him.  I found the prosecutor’s part in the story rather dull and predictable.  “I can tell you that the river Denial is indeed pretty freaking wide.”  There is none of the sophisticated fire of “Midwives.”  The female author, who happens to see angels, is simply an unneeded character.  Can’t figure out why she wasn’t edited out.  Maybe the author wanted to show different thoughts on religious paradise: The Garden of Eden.

However, the orphaned teenage daughter is very well written.  She becomes alive on the page.   It feels as if you are reading a real teen’s diary.  “What it was like to suddenly be an orphan (and I am an orphan) and feel all the time like you’re an imposition….Membership in Club Orphan has its privileges too.”  She could do anything and no one would reprimand her.  “Still, I wouldn’t recommend it.”   Hers is the only voice that allows the author to shine.  In an odd way, the daughter’s irony and wit, combined with her survival instincts, remind me of the females in Bohjailian’s “The Sandcastle Girls.”  That story is about the 1915 Armenian Genocide.  It is filled with the suspense of life and death.  I was mesmerized when I read that one.  My point is that the author’s talent pokes through even in a tale not quite as polished as I know his work can be.

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“Small Hours” by Jennifer Kitses

Genre:  General Fiction (Adult)                  

Pub Date:  13 Jun 2017

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing  

I chose to read and review this book since it is being pegged as the writing is in a Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta style.  I beg to differ.   These are two of my favorite authors and I just did not see it.  The only similarities I could find are that “Small Hours” written by Jenifer Kitses, evokes a sense of place, and money, or lack of it, in the blue collar world of upstate New York.  The protagonists are in their early forties with twin three-year-old daughters.  Like many city couples, they buy a home in the suburbs that they really cannot afford.  Unfortunately for them, they bought the house at the height of the market. When they realize that their new neighborhood has a seedy side, obviously little research went into the buying, it is now too late to sell for it would be at a loss. So the wife, who works from home, is surrounded by those she would rather not have to interact with, her own neighbors.

The story is told in a span of one day, hour by hour, minute by minute using a James Joyce Ulysses format.  If you think you ever had a bad 24 hours read this story and it will no longer seem so bad.  The narration alternates between the husband’s and the wife’s point of view.  Neither knows that the other is on the verge of getting fired.  They both have been severely distracted and not at their best work wise (actually anywise).  The tale almost reads like a suspense story with the tick, tick, ticking of how many more work related, phone calls, emails, and deadlines they are each avoiding.   Both are stalling with their answers to their perspective employers.  But, Kitses plays this sort of suspense hand one too many times for her readers.  Three-quarters through, I was hoping that the damn clock would just break already and get it over with.  Both are also hiding a secret from the other (besides their soon-to-be-unemployed status).   I think the author was going for more of a “Desperate Hours” theme rather than a “Small Hours” one, either way, she lost me.   Having a book’s plot take place in a 24-hour period is not unheard of there are quite a few out there.  The classic novel “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf is one of them.  Or a more contemporary example is Everything Happens Today” by Jesse Browner, these were thought provoking novels with fascinating characters.  I am afraid that Kitses’s perpetually frenzied married couple simply were not.

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“The Girl Before” by J.P. Delaney

Pub. Date:  January 24,2017       the-girl-before

Publisher:   Random House Publishing Group

The house in this story makes for a perfect Halloween tale, which is when I read this book.  It is narrated by two women.  They both (at different times) move into what the real estate agents call a “minimalist” house.  And, both have a relationship with the control freak architect who designed the house.

What the women also have in common is that they have recently survived an ordeal causing them to think irrationally, which might explain why they would even consider leasing this house.   The application is absurdly long and personal.  There is an endless list of ridiculous rules such as no rugs, no curtains, no artwork, no books, and no additional kitchenware or furniture.  To enhance the strangeness the house is digitally wired to meet all one’s needs.  The renters wear a wristband that automatically manages the house lights, the stove, the bath water temperature, and everything else you can think of, really creepy.

The theory behind the “minimalist” house is supposedly the less clutter one lives in the less complex one’s existence becomes leading to a healthier person, yea right.  So the question becomes, who is crazier the male architect or the female residents?  I didn’t think the writing was superior, but the story has some nice twists that will keep you guessing.  I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed the book if I was in the mood for something more substantial, but I found this to be a good read on a cold Hallows’ Eve.  My main criticism is that I am so tired of psychological thrillers using the word “girl” in the title.  I do hope this fad ends soon.

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