Thursday, November 29, 2018

Shakespeare Saved My Life Offers a Fascinating Look at the Transformative Power of Literature in Even the Most Unlikely of Places

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"Breaking into the state's most secured unit would prove to be almost as difficult as breaking out" (13).

While studying literature in college, 25-year-old Laura Bates began volunteering with a literacy program at Cook County Jail in Chicago.  Although the environment could be scary, the work was deeply satisfying.  After earning a graduate degree, Bates continued to teach English courses in Indiana prisons.  As an assistant professor at Indiana State University, she longed to do more.  Crazy as it sounded, she desired to teach Shakespeare to the most unlikely students of all—those locked in solitary confinement.  Putting her career and her reputation at risk, Bates persevered with her goal and finally received permission to try her program in 2003 at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in downstate Indiana.  The prison's most dangerous residents—the worst of the worst—were housed in its Secure Housing Unit, commonly referred to as "Supermax".  Despite the fact that the prisoners were held in concrete isolation cells with thick, bunker-like doors and communication could only be had through a slit in the door, the program became a surprising success.

Over the decade Bates spent teaching Shakespeare in Supermax, one student especially stood out.  Larry Newton, a convicted murderer, remained in solitary confinement for ten years.  Still, his life changed when he started taking Bates' class.  Newton's general intelligence and surprising insight into 400-year-old plays shocked Dr. Bates and changed the way she read the Bard.  Newton, who declared that Shakespeare saved his life, went on to write workbooks and help teach other felons and juvenile offenders about the power of Shakespeare. 

Larry Newton's story is the focus of Shakespeare Saved My Life, Laura Bates' 2013 book about her experience teaching in solitary confinement.  It's a fascinating account that offers an incredible inside look at prison life and how inmates can be changed when encouraged to use their minds to examine and relate to literature.  Bates also discusses how her own life—both as a scholar and as a person—changed because of what she learned in solitary.  Overall, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and touching.  I learned a lot from it.

Even if you're not interested in reading Shakespeare Saved My Life, you might want to check out this excellent Ted talk by Laura Bates.  It's only 15 minutes long, but it gives you a good idea of how her Shakespeare program worked in Supermax:



(Readalikes:  I've never really read anything on this topic before, so I'm not sure what to compare it to.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, innuendo, and disturbing subject matter

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Engrossing Titanic Novel Brings Something New to the Table

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As Titanic sinks into the inky deep, chaos reigns.  Her luckiest passengers hunch in the few available lifeboats, others cling to floating debris trying to keep their heads above water, while still others are trapped inside the drowning ocean liner with no chance of escape.  From Lifeboat 21, three women watch the horrific scene, terrified for loved ones left behind and for themselves, adrift on the open sea in the middle of a ghastly nightmare.  They begin the journey as strangers, but their shared terror brings them together, binding them for the rest of their lives.  

Each of the women harbors her own secrets and fears.  Charlotte Digby, a beautiful 21-year-old pickpocket, lied her way onto Titanic in the hopes of starting a new life in America with the man she loves.  In the aftermath of the disaster, she has the chance to reinvent herself completely—as long as no one discovers her real identity.  Cavorting with her lover on Titanic has made Esme Harper, a bored housewife, happier than she's ever been.  As desperately as she wants to get to land, she dreads returning to her staid life.  Before the night is through, Anna Halversson—a Swedish farm girl—is in a position to get everything she's ever wanted.  But how can she enjoy the victory if she's plagued with guilt over what she did to gain it?

When a sudden death reunites Charlotte, Esme, and Anna two decades later, each will have to come to terms with the choices they've made, the consequences they've reaped, and the secrets they've kept for twenty long years ...

Although I love books about Titanic, it's difficult to find one that brings something new to the table.  By focusing more on the characters' pre- and post- Titanic lives than their onboard experience, On a Cold Dark Sea by Elizabeth Blackwell does just that.  Her story people can carry the tale because they're all complex, flawed, and intriguing.  Which isn't to say the plot isn't interesting; it is.  Blackwell's solid, engaging prose also makes this novel stand out.  Because of all these elements, I very much enjoyed this engrossing story about regret and redemption, choice and accountability, agony and authenticity.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor and The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of On a Cold Dark Sea from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Despite Intriguing Topic, Titanic Novel Plods Along

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In April 1912, a group of Irish travelers from County Mayo boarded the most magnificent ship the world had ever seen.  Despite their steerage class tickets, they marveled at the grandeur and luxury of R.M.S. Titanic.  Little could any of them imagine that so many—including most of their group—would not survive their voyage aboard the great, but ill-fated ocean liner.  

One of few steerage class survivors, 17-year-old Maggie Murphy is grappling with the enormity of her loss.  Alone in a new country, her neighbors and friends buried at sea, Maggie knows she has to put the tragedy behind her and move on.  Shoving her grief into the farthest recesses of her heart, she forges ahead, vowing never to speak of the terrible, fateful night she watched Titanic—and many of her loved ones—sink into the unforgiving deep.  

Seventy years later, Maggie watches helplessly as her 21-year-old great-granddaughter flounders after losing both of her parents within a short time.  In an effort to reach out, Maggie decides to unburden herself to grieving Grace.  As the women share their secrets, both will find closure and renewed hope despite past hurts.

I find books about Titanic endlessly fascinating, so when I heard about The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor, I knew I needed to read it.  Unfortunately, the story moves along slowly, features flat characters, and meanders about without offering any twists or surprises to keep the tale exciting.  Without any real story goals to push them along, our heroines seem aimless, observing action more than creating it.  Although I do appreciate that The Girl Who Came Home is a clean, hopeful story, on the whole I found it predictable and dull.  I wanted more depth, more originality, more motivation to keep turning pages.  I did finish this book, but overall, it just didn't do a lot for me.


Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Girl Who Came Home from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Debut Novel in P.I. Series an Intriguing Beginning

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Twenty-eight years ago, Clea Spector got into a strange blue car and was never seen again.  Her sister, Brenna, has never gotten over the loss.  Ever since Clea disappeared, she has been both blessed and cursed with Hyperthymestic Syndrome.  With perfect clarity, Brenna can recall everything she has ever experienced since age 11.  While her neurological disorder is helpful in her work as a private investigator, it's not the easiest thing to cope with on a day-to-day basis.  Brenna has learned how to harness her flawless memory to help her find missing persons and yet, she still can't figure out what happened to Clea.  

In the meantime, Brenna is called in to help with the case of Carol Wentz, a 51-year-old woman, who has vanished.  Oddly enough, Carol once lived next door to Iris Neff, a 6-year-old who walked away from a family barbecue eleven years ago and disappeared.  She's been obsessed with the case ever since.  Brenna knows the feeling.  Like Clea's unsolved case, Iris' continues to haunt the P.I.  As Brenna tries to figure out what happened to Carol, she discovers strange connections between the neighbors' disappearances.  What do these new clues mean?  Can Brenna find the missing persons before it's too late?

And She Was—the first book in Alison Gaylin's mystery series starring Brenna Spector—offers an intriguing, twisty plot that kept me glued to its pages.  I also enjoyed the characters in this one; not all of them are likeable, but all of them are interesting.  Brenna is both.  She's a brave, funny, and real heroine whose unique disorder makes for interesting reading.  Gaylin's a skilled thriller writer, one I'm just discovering.  Since I've enjoyed both the books I've read by her so far, I'm definitely up for more.  I'll for sure be continuing with the Brenna Spector series as well as checking out Gaylin's standalone novels.

(Readalikes:  Um, no specific series or authors are coming to mind.  Help!)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, and blood/gore

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of And She Was from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Underwhelming Thriller Doesn't Stand Out Among Its Many, Many Fellows

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Ten years ago, six university friends from Oxford decided to spend an idyllic week at a quaint farmhouse in the French countryside.  It was supposed to be a relaxing holiday away from books, homework, and college stress.  When the group met Severine Dupas, the beautiful 19-year-old girl next door, things changed.  Some welcomed the novelty of her presence, others resented it.  A big fight ended the vacation, Severine vanished, and none of the friendships were the same afterward.  

Now, a decade later, Severine's corpse has been discovered in a well near the farmhouse.  Detectives are questioning everyone who knew her and everything that happened during the holiday week prior to her disappearance.  Kate Channing, a 31-year-old London lawyer, stands to lose everything she's worked so hard for if she's named as Severine's murderer.  As suspicion mounts against her, Kate struggles to make sense of what she remembers from the ill-fated holiday.  What really happened during that week in France?  Who wanted or needed Severine gone badly enough to take her life?  Which of Kate's friends became a killer during the vacation Kate desperately wishes had never happened?

The French Girl, a debut novel by Scottish author Lexie Elliott, offers an intriguing premise with a heck-ton of potential.  Unfortunately, the story starts slowly and never really gains momentum.  Its plot and characters are intriguing enough that I kept reading, but not unique enough to make this psychological thriller stand out among its many, many fellows.  In the end, The French Girl left me feeling underwhelmed and confused since Elliott left some story threads dangling. Still, I'm definitely willing to give the author another chance.  Her upcoming sophomore novel, The Missing Years, sounds like the kind of Gothic thriller I adore.  I will for sure be checking it out in April 2019.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a bit of In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Under a Dark Sky by Lori Rader-Day)

Grade:

  
If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

If I Die Tonight A Taut, Quietly Compelling Thriller

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When Aimee En, a washed-out 80s pop star, rushes into the Havenkill Police Department raving about a car-jacking, Officer Pearl Maze isn't sure what to think.  The hysterical former celebrity is telling a tale that doesn't make any sense—not just because things like this don't happen in sleepy Havenkill, but also because the woman's story is full of gaping holes.  All Pearl knows is that the 17-year-old boy who tried to stop the robbery is dead.  Another high schooler, an outcast the other kids call "Weird Wade", is being accused on social media of causing the whole thing.  Guilty or not, Wade isn't talking.  It's obvious all the parties involved know more than they're letting on.  What really happened that night?  It's up to Pearl to find out.    

If I Die Tonight, a psychological thriller by Alison Gaylin, asks a chilling question:  How well can you ever know another person?  Even your own child?  In this novel about the secrets we all keep, the main characters grapple with this baffling conundrum.  Told from various viewpoints, this character-driven novel offers an intriguing premise, taut plotting, and enough twists to keep the reader guessing.  If I Die Tonight isn't the flashiest mystery in the world, but it is quietly compelling and thoroughly engrossing.  I enjoyed the read and will definitely read more books by the very skilled Alison Gaylin.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  Suggestions?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

With You Always: Intriguing Setting, Uplifting Story

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With the 1857 financial crisis causing panic all across The United States, families are becoming more and more desperate.  Farmers receiving less money for their grain are losing their homes and land.  Penniless parents are shipping their hungry children off on orphan trains.  Young working women like Elise Neumann are growing increasingly panicked as their meager earnings fail to cover the needs of their families.  Unable to properly care for her younger siblings, Elise reluctantly decides to take advantage of a program that's sending skilled workers to other states where jobs are more plentiful.  If she can send home enough money, she can save her family from starvation.

Thornton Quincy may not be destitute (not yet anyway), but the 24-year-old has problems of his own.  His dying father has issued a tantalizing challenge to Thornton and his brother—whoever can build a sustainable town along the Central Illinois Railroad and marry a suitable woman with whom he is truly in love within six months will inherit the old man's considerable fortune.  Determined to prove himself to his father once and for all, Thornton plans to win the bet.  What he doesn't plan on is meeting the beautiful, intriguing Elise Neumann.  The better he gets to know her, the more Thornton questions the value of what he's doing with his life.  Can he win both his father's respect and Elise's heart?  Or will he have to choose one over the other?

Although I expected With You Always, the first book in Jody Hedlund's Orphan Train series, to be about, well, orphan trains, it really isn't.  At least not yet.  This initial volume focuses instead on the adventures of Elise and Thornton as they establish new lives in the emerging town of Quincy, Illinois.  Theirs is an interesting time and place and I found the historical details in this novel fascinating.  I enjoyed the characters as well, although I would have liked to see plucky Elise save herself a few times instead of being rescued by others.  Although With You Always tells, overall, a hopeful, uplifting story, it doesn't shy away from tough subjects like poverty, women's lack of opportunity/rights, discrimination, etc.  I liked that, as well as the book's clean, upbeat feel.  Although this is technically a Christian novel, it never feels preachy or cheesy—which is exactly how I dig my faith-based fiction.  On the whole, then, I enjoyed With You Always and am definitely planning to continue with the series.

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't really think of any.  Can you?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, mild innuendo, and vague references to sex and prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of With You Always from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Friday, November 16, 2018

French's Newest Slower, More Meditative, But Compelling Nonetheless

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A charmer with an uncanny knack for lucking his way out of every scrape, 28-year-old Toby Hennessy is celebrating his latest near-miss when his luck finally runs out.  When he surprises a pair of thieves in the act of robbing his flat, Toby is beaten and left for dead.  Although he survives, he suffers a traumatic brain injury that results in debilitating anxiety and panic attacks.  Needing a change of scenery, Toby flees Dublin for the Ivy House, his ancestral home in the country.  

Toby's idyllic country retreat is shattered when a skull is discovered inside a witch elm on the property.  When the remains are identified and motives are ascertained, Toby is left with a mystery to solve.  With the help of two cousins with whom he grew up, he tries to make sense of his past, a prospect that is suddenly much grimmer and perplexing than he ever thought.  His closest friends and relatives are keeping damning secrets—can Toby uncover the truth they're hiding?  Does he even want to?  

As much as I love the Dublin Murder Squad series by Irish crime writer Tana French, I admit I was intrigued when I heard she would be publishing her first standalone novel.  While The Witch Elm shares similarities with French's previous books, it's also quite different.  Slower moving and more meditative.  Which doesn't mean it's not compelling.  It is.  It's just engrossing in a different way.  Although the story revolves around a mysterious death and involves a police investigation, The Witch Elm is not a crime novel per se.  That is, it's not so much about solving a case as it is about looking inside the heads and hearts of some very intriguing characters.  While the action does ramp up toward the end, the book's finale is depressing and pointless, but also thought-provoking.  Overall, I liked The Witch Elm, although it's definitely not my favorite from French.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books by Tana French)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, drug use, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Witch Elm from the generous folks at Penguin via those at Edelweiss.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

I Don't Usually Love Regency Romances, But This One Is a Most Delightful Exception (With a Giveaway!)

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Juliana Ashbourne may be just a governess, but the 19-year-old has dreams that are grander than her station and richer than the pitiful sum she has squirreled away in her jewelry box.  When she receives notice that she has inherited a shockingly large amount from a grandfather she never knew, Julianna's dream of opening a school for girls is suddenly within reach.  There's only one caveat.  In order to get the money she must spend a month at Havenfield, the sprawling country estate where her mother grew up and from whence her mother was banned after eloping with an unsuitable man—Juliana's beloved father.  How can she accept such a bargain from the family that callously banished their own daughter, shunning her for the rest of her life? 

When circumstances force her hand, Juliana reluctantly travels to Havenfield to begin her sentence.  From the moment she steps onto the grounds, she finds herself among both friends and foes.  While her aunt pelts her with icy glares, Julianna feels only warmth from Mr. William Rowley, the handsome heir to Havenfield.  He might be a relentless tease, but his interest in Juliana is sincere.  Which only makes her place in this strange new world more confusing.  When a scandal threatens everything she's come to hold dear, Juliana must decide where she really belongs and what her heart truly wants.  

Although I'm not a big romance fan, Regency love stories always entertain me with their light, frothy storylines; engaging, witty banter; and virtuous, likeable characters engaged in clean, wholesome romancing.  I've come to expect (and accept) all the loosey-goosey plotting; cliché, too-good-to-be-true story people; and the same soap opera dramas playing out in the same stately parlors and gilded ballrooms.  Because they're more brain candy than soul food, it's rare for me to really love a Regency novel.  Which is why I found The Truth About Miss Ashbourne, a debut by Joanna Barker, such a delightful exception.  With its engaging plot, well-developed characters, slow-burning romance, and skillful prose, it kept me thoroughly entertained.  I loved the cast, especially Juliana, who kept surprising me even though I felt like I knew her.  The romance developed predictably, but over time, which made it feel less insta-lovey than other Regency couplings.  Although The Truth About Miss Ashbourne runs a little longer than I usually like these kinds of novels to go, I found I didn't mind at all.  In fact, I would eagerly read more books about these characters or at least by this talented new author on whom I will very definitely be keeping an eye.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Regency/Proper romances by Sarah M. Eden, Jennifer Moore, Julianne Donaldson, Josi S. Kilpack, etc.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Truth About Miss Ashbourne from the generous folks at Covenant in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

--


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Monday, November 12, 2018

Beyond the Books: LightView Rolling Base Magnifier Lamp from Brightech

It might surprise you to discover that I have other hobbies besides reading (gasp!). Not that I've engaged in some of them much over the past few years, but still, I want you to know that I'm more than just a reader/blogger.  I'm a well-rounded (literally and figuratively) book nerd!

The good folks at Brightech, a Los Angeles lighting company, offered to send me a free magnifier lamp (in exchange for an honest review) that would be perfect for one of my hobbies—cross-stitching.  I eagerly accepted their generous offer.  Because I cross-stitch (and read) most often while sitting in a recliner, I chose the LightView Rolling Base Magnifier Lamp, which features a dimmable LED magnifying light on a long swing arm.  This element, plus the six-wheeled base, makes it easy to move the lamp to the exact position I need.  It's simple to place it over my head, over my shoulder, or wherever it works best to light up the project on which I'm working.  The brighter settings are perfect for needlework, especially since my aging eyes have trouble seeing fine details.  It would also work well for any other craft, hobby or repair project that requires magnification.  For reading, I prefer one of the softer settings so that I can see the words on the page without straining my eyes.  Despite the bright light, you won't feel any heat coming off the lamp, which means you can enjoy reading or crafting without sweating to death!

I used to have an Ottlite lamp in a similar design and had been considering replacing it when Brightech contacted me.  Since the LightView version does everything my Ottlite did and more, I'm very pleased with it.  The product was simple to put together (my 13-year-old son did it for me), looks nice, and has lots of great features that make it very useful.  It's solid and well-constructed, which lets me know that it's something my family and I will be using for years to come.  Right now, the lamp is on sale for $108.99 with free shipping since it's over $50.  While that may seem a little pricey, it's cheaper than similar Ottlite products.  If you don't love the LightView Rolling Base Magnifier Lamp, never fear—you can return it for free.  If you do, you'll be happy to know it comes with a 5-year warranty, just in case.  I've been very happy with this lamp and would definitely recommend purchasing one if you're in the market for a high-quality magnifying lamp to use while enjoying your favorite hobbies.

(If you're not looking for a magnifying lamp right now, be sure to check out Brightech's other lighting products.  They have a large selection of table lamps, floor lamps, and string lights at affordable prices.)   

Thank you, Brightech!

I Heart Its Premise Big Time. Its Execution? Not So Much.

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Few people are tough enough—physically, mentally, or emotionally—to endure a "winter over" in Antarctica.  Not everyone can handle being cooped up in an isolated compound with the same small group of people for nine months, let alone in extreme weather and almost complete darkness 24/7.  For Cass Jennings, a 30-something mechanical engineer, working at the Shackleton South Pole Research Facility for the austral winter is a way to escape her troubled past and start over.  Her job as a vehicle mechanic/plumber/carpenter may not be glamorous or exciting, but it is essential.  Her tasks keep her mind in the present, not the past, and that's all Cass needs right now.

When the death of a colleague sets a series of mysterious events into motion, however, Cass begins to worry about her future.  The stranger things get at Shackleton, the more she starts to panic.  With little communication from the outside world, it's up to the 44 people at the facility to figure out what's going on.  The tension is already tearing people apart, filling them with a dangerous combination of paranoia, hysteria, and fear.  As rationality disappears around her, Cass fights to stay calm.  It's up to her to find the answers that will save herself and everyone left in the remote facility.  Can she do it in time?  Or will they all fall victim to an enemy even more extreme and deadly than anything Antarctica can throw at them?

I'm a sucker for thrillers set in harsh, secluded environments so when Kay mentioned The Winter Over by Matthew Iden, I knew I had to read it.  The haunting, atmospheric setting gives the novel a deliciously shivery backdrop.  Although Iden goes into a lot of detail about Antarctica, he weaves it into the story in a way that feels natural, not info-dumpy.  I found it all fascinating, much more so than the novel's characters or its disjointed plot.  Because there are so many people in this tale, I had a hard time keeping them straight or caring about any of them (most of them are unlikable anyway).  Add to that a predictable (albeit abrupt) ending and, overall, I just didn't love this one.  I heart its premise big time, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of My Last Continent by Midge Raymond)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, and blood/gore

To the FTC, with love:  I bought an e-copy of The Winter Over on Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Bolton's Newest Not My Absolute Favorite, But a Close Second

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It's been 30 years since Florence Lovelady joined the Sabden police force, becoming the first female officer to serve in the small town near the Pendle Forest in Lancashire, England.  She may have been a 22-year-old greenie back then, but she solved the biggest case the area had ever seen, making a name for herself.  Putting Larry Glassbrook—a coffin maker who got his kicks burying teen girls alive—in prison remains the highlight of Florence's long and distinguished career.  Now, at 52, she's the most senior serving policewoman in Britain and only months away from retirement.  

When chilling events from the past start repeating themselves, Florence is stunned.  Glassbrook is dead; he can't be pulling strings from beyond the grave.  Either they're dealing with a very skilled copycat or Florence got it wrong all those years ago.  But if the coffin maker is innocent, then who buried those girls alive?  And how can she stop the horror from happening all over again?  

It's no secret that I'm a big Sharon Bolton fan.  I've read all of her books and while Little Black Lies will probably always be my favorite, The Craftsman isn't far behind.  Why?  It's a bit different from Bolton's others—still gritty, but less gruesome and more Gothic.  The characters are intriguing, the plot's compelling, and, as always, Bolton surprised me with a twisty, unexpected finale.  I didn't suspect the real killer until the very end, which is exactly how I like it!  So, while The Craftsman may not be my absolute favorite Bolton book, it's a close second.

(Readalikes:  Other crime novels by Sharon Bolton; also reminds me of books by Jane Casey)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Craftsman from the generous folks at St. Martin's Press.  Thank you!

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Book of Essie: Intriguing Premise, So-So Execution

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"The girl sitting on the red couch next to her newly proclaimed fiancé is wholly two-dimensional; she is a projection only, like light cast on the surface of a still pond or the first hint of dawn in winter as it breaks behind the barn.  She smiles when it is expected.  She says all the right things.  She is the exact combination of humble and sarcastic that gives the impression that she might actually be real.  But she isn't.  She's a fabrication.  A meticulously constructed and lifelike illusion, but an illusion all the same" (114-115).

As the daughter of a charismatic evangelical preacher, 17-year-old Esther "Essie" Hicks has been watched her whole life.  Literally.  Her family has been the subject of the hit reality show "Six for Hicks" for longer than she can remember.  Fans laud the Hicks' rock-solid faith and in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world attitude, while critics denounce their made-for-tv flakiness and the hypocrisy in their look-at-me lifestyle.  With her insider's view, Essie knows—or thinks she knows—what really goes on behind the scenes.  Sick of being in the spotlight, she longs to break free of it all.

When Essie announces she's pregnant, but refuses to name the father, the shocking news threatens to topple the entire Hicks enterprise.  The show's producers scramble to find a way to spin the unwelcome revelation, finally deciding on the most ratings-friendly option—a wedding.  Fake nuptials aren't enough for Essie's calculating mother; the marriage must not only come off as authentic, it has to be real.  Since wedding her baby's father is not an option, Essie sets her sights on 18-year-old Roarke Richards, an ambitious but penniless acquaintance.  Desperate to help his bankrupt parents and keep his own secret under wraps, Roarke reluctantly goes along with the Hicks' plan.  What he doesn't realize is that his new fiancee has her own agenda.  On a hunt for answers that could destroy her family forever, Essie won't stop digging until all their secrets are exposed.  How far will she go to win back the right to live her life on her own terms?  

The premise behind The Book of Essie, a debut novel by Meghan MacLean Weir, has fascinated me since I first heard about it.  With so much potential for juicy book drama, how could I not give this one a go?  While the story's big reveals aren't very surprising, the novel does offer some surprisingly sharp observations about authenticity, hypocrisy, media distortion, blind belief, and standing up for what's right.  Essie and Roarke are sympathetic characters, both of whom are easy to root for.  Their situation seems incredibly far-fetched, but it does lead to some interesting plot developments.  Although The Book of Essie kept my attention, I did find it disjointed and heavy-handed.  Overall, then, I didn't love it.  Despite the hype that surrounded this book, it was just an okay read for me.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Something Real by Heather Demetrios)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, depictions of underage drinking, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Book of Essie from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Monday, November 05, 2018

I've Yet to Meet an Armstrong Thriller That Didn't Completely Suck Me In ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

No one stays in the tiny dead-end town of Reeve's End, Kentucky.  Winter Crane doesn't plan to be the exception.  The minute she finishes high school, the 17-year-old will run far away to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.  Her drunken father might miss his human punching bag, but Winter can't wait to be rid of him. 

In the meantime, Winter finds refuge in the lush forest surrounding her home.  Her temporary peace is interrupted when she finds Lennon Bishop, a teenage boy who's been badly beaten, in her woods.  He's evasive about what happened to him and before long, he's disappeared from Reeve's End.  When Lennon's older brother, Jude, comes to town looking for answers, he heads straight for Winter.  She has no idea why kids keep vanishing from town, but when she reluctantly joins Jude's quest for the truth, she's shocked to find that things in her hometown are not what they seem.  Not at all ...

Kelley Armstrong's thrillers never fail to engross me, be they geared toward adults or teens.  Missing is another YA offering from the prolific author.  Like her other novels, this one features a propulsive plot, tough but sympathetic characters, and strong, immersive prose.  I loved tough, capable Winter and definitely cared what was going to happen to her.  Because of all these elements, I couldn't stop reading Missing.  It's a riveting thriller that kept me zooming through pages until I got to the book's satisfying conclusion.  I've yet to meet an Armstrong thriller that didn't completely suck me in and this one is definitely no exception.    

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't think of anything.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, November 03, 2018

YA Thriller Can't-Put-It-Down Compelling, If Not Wholly Believable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Three years ago, Skye Gilchrist fled her hometown in the wake of a tragic school shooting that left four of her classmates dead.  One of the students was her brother, Luka.  If he had been a victim that would have been one thing, but he wasn't.  Luka was one of the shooters.  Ever since the shooting, Skye has been wracked with grief and confusion.  How could her only sibling have committed such a hateful act?  She simply can't believe Luka would have done such a thing.

Now 16, Skye has returned to live in a town still haunted by what her brother did.  She's barely stepped off the plane when she realizes Luka's sins have not been forgotten.  Not by a long shot.  Since he's not around to take the blame, Skye becomes the recipient of the town's anger.  Even though he lost his brother in the shooting, Jesse Mandal—Skye's former best friend—is the only one who shows any empathy.  Together, the two of them uncover inconsistencies about the school shooting, evidence that may clear Luka's name.  The more they dig into the past, however, the more dangerous their present becomes ...

Since I've been enjoying Kelley Armstrong's Rockton series for adults, I thought I'd give one of her YA novels a go.  Aftermath sounded intriguing and it is, although I didn't end up loving the book overall.  While I did find it a compelling, couldn't-put-it-down thriller, it also seemed far-fetched and melodramatic to me.  The fact that everyone in the mid-size town knew Skye on sight (even though she was the sister of a shooter and it had been three years since she lived there) and felt so vehemently vicious toward her just didn't ring true for me.  Also, the kids in the book didn't act like 16 year olds—they seemed much older and their parents/guardians didn't seem to care a lick what they did.  Totally unrealistic.  So, yeah, there were definitely things about Aftermath that bugged.  Still, it's a fast, engrossing read that had me burning through the pages to find out what was going to happen.  Based on this, I'll for sure read Armstrong's other teen thrillers.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult)  

Grade: 


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, depictions of/references to illegal drug use, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Shivery Gothic Tale Another Winner From Ware

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Working as a tarot card reader on a Cornwall pier has given Harriet "Hal" Westaway certain skills.  The 21-year-old has learned to read not just fortunes, but people.  That's how she knows the loan sharks sniffing around her booth mean serious business.  If Hal doesn't pay her dead mother's debts and soon, some very dangerous men are going to end her card-reading days forever.  

When Hal receives a notice informing her she's received a large inheritance, she knows it's too good to be true.  The letter has obviously been delivered to the wrong person.  Hal's too desperate, however, not to see this unexpected opportunity as the lifesaver she's been praying for.  With the acting skills she's honed over a lifetime of boardwalk bewitching, she just might be able to convince complete strangers to give her the cash she needs to save her life.  

As soon as Hal steps inside mysterious Trespassen House, it becomes clear that something very, very strange is going on with her newfound relatives.  She's come too far to back out now, but is the prize worth tangling herself up in whatever sinister plot is afoot in the Cornwall countryside?

I've enjoyed all of Ruth Ware's psychological thrillers, but her newest—The Death of Mrs. Westaway—is my hands-down favorite.  The story revolves around a likable heroine whose pitiable situation makes her wholly sympathetic.  Hal is intriguing, as is the situation in which she finds herself.  With creepy, Gothic overtones, the tale is a compelling and shivery one.  Its atmospheric setting, mysterious characters, and twisty, propulsive plot combine to make The Death of Mrs. Westaway an engrossing, can't-put-it-down thriller. I loved it.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other books by Ruth Ware, including In a Dark, Dark Wood; The Lying Game; and The Woman in Cabin 10)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives) and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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