A Chilling Tale: A book review

The Chosen (Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht #5)The Chosen by Kristina Ohlsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Chosen is a dark story that looks into the heinous murders of a pre-school teacher and two young boys. In true Nordic Noir fashion, the motivation is dark, the atmosphere oppressive and every character flawed and suspect.

Nordic Noir has been characterized by it’s Scandinavian setting, it’s bleak landscape and plain language. There are many authors who are finding their home in the genre and readers continue to seek out these morally complex, disturbing tales. This is a new Nordic author for me. And this title is touted as a #1 Bestseller in Sweden on the cover of my edition. While noir is not one of my go-to genres, it is one I find myself comfortably enjoying when the mood strikes. I would not consider this a good place to begin a journey into Nordic Noir, but if already a fan, this is a good author to add to your reading schedule.

Once again, I am reading a series out of order; but, in this case, I did not feel like I missed anything by doing so. There were several references to earlier exploits by our detectives, but enough information was shared that I could follow along with where the characters were. The fifth installment in this series focuses on a tight-knit Jewish community in Sweden. As the detectives fight their own personal demons, they must also solve the crime and for one involved, it’s going to hit much too close to home.

The author uses an interesting construct of interspersing pieces of the ‘conclusion’ throughout the story. The reader is set up to know one of the characters is going to have a very bad day early on. The information given in these conclusion parts keeps the reader guessing right to the end. The language is straightforward and easy to read, even if the material is occasionally more than one wants to imagine.

The comments about the snow littered throughout the story helped to set the stage: “Snow is falling from the dark sky, settling like frozen tears of angels on her head and shoulders,”
“The falling snow was like confetti made of glass,” “It was as if the snow was whispering to him”. And those are just a few of the examples from the first 50 pages.

I picked up a copy of this book at a library bag sale. I was surprised to see it came from a library system in the UK. I will be searching out additional titles by this author, so I am hoping her books have crossed the pond!

This is a very dark story, as is typical of the genre. There is a tight knit community with secrets galore and all those secrets will need to be exposed in order to find the hunter of children. There is no lack of suspects and even as they are cleared, they come back under suspicion. This story will keep you guessing and may keep you up at night.

New Thriller Coming May 3

Gone in the Night (Alex Devlin)Gone in the Night by Mary-Jane Riley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the publisher: “When the victim of a car crash begs journalist Alex Devlin for help before disappearing without trace, Alex finds herself caught up in a mystery that won’t let her go.

Determined to find the missing man, she is soon investigating a conspiracy that threatens some of the most vulnerable members of society.

But will Alex be prepared to put her own life on the line to help those who can’t help themselves?”

This was a fast-paced thriller which I thoroughly enjoyed. Once again, I chose to read a series out of order. This was my first in the Alex Devlin series, and my first by this author, but I am pretty sure it will not be my last.

The story begins with several story lines, setting the stage for our main characters’ convergence. Throughout the novel, we see the story through the eyes of several characters. The author succeeds in making each voice unique and I did not question whose story I was hearing at any given time. Most of the chapters were short, but they stayed focused on one character at a time which made the story accessible and kept this reader wanting more.

The mystery was present, but I found the thriller aspects were much better well done. I did not particularly find there to be a lot of suspects, but hunting down the killer or killers and stopping them sooner rather than later felt urgent. Another reviewer mentioned the cat-and-mouse game in this book, and I wholeheartedly agree with that characterization.

I am not good at geography in general. I do recognize this book took place in the UK somewhere, but not in London. I did not find the exact location to be required knowledge to enjoy the story. There was some vocabulary in the book with which I was unfamiliar and I do believe it is English slang which has not yet made it over the pond (at least not yet to me). I also kept in mind that the word f*ck is not viewed as offensive in the UK as it can be here in the US, so I overlooked the liberal use of the word. Not that it was out of place, the characters generally used it in appropriate places and ways for their situations.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book.

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Where the Dead Sit TalkingWhere the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where the Dead Sit Talking is a moving fictional account of a young Native American foster child. Sequoyah is a 15-year old boy moving into yet another new foster home when we first meet him. As we move through his experiences in and around his new home, Sequoyah shares his difficult early years and a definite hope for his present and future.

I thouroughly enjoyed this novel. I found the prose accessible, but emotionally charged. Even as I discounted this novel for having a protagonist too young for me to share common ground, I enjoyed the characters and the plot. And as with most of my favorite novels there was a glimmer (and sometimes more than that) of hope and humanity in this world.

“People live and die. People kill themselves or they get killed. The rest of us live on, burdened by what is inescapbable.” (p. 1) From the start of the novel, we know we are going to be confronted with death. Not only the death of a major character, but other deaths with varying degrees of impact. The novel is littered with notes about when, where, and how various characters die after their interactions with our protagonist.

I tend toward adult novels. I like adult lives and protagonists. I am not a person who hated high school, but I also am not someone who needs to relive them either. I chose to read this because it was on the Tournament of Books longlist and it was a National Book Award longlist title. So, when the narrator turned out to be a teenager, I figured it would be a quick read and I would be able to mark another one off the list. But, no, this book was not a quick, young adult novel. The narrator has a mesmerizing voice and a credible level of maturity given his background. He does has some naivete about him, but for the most part, it was comfortable passing some time with Sequoyah.

The other characters in this novel were given enough quirk and depth that I felt they were real people. A good example is Mr. Gillis. He is a teacher at Sequoyah’s school. Sequoyah runs into Mr. Gillis several times in the boys’ room. A somewhat sad and lonely individual, but a true human nonetheless.

The plotting on this novel was almost perfect. There may have been a moment or two too slow, but the point of the novel required a somewhat slow burn. The weaving of Sequoyah’s back story, Rosemary’s back story and the current events felt balanced.

I can highly recommend this book to others. I will be looking forward to visiting other titles by this author.

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Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney

Murder in Belgravia (A Mayfair 100 Murder Mystery #1)Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another historical mystery for me. This one is set during WWI London. I really like the premise of this novel: a police officer realizes he is going to need help from the fairer sex and sets up an under the table operation in order to investigate more sensitive crimes. Then the crimes got a bit dark.

I am enjoying reading more historical mysteries and WWI has been a good time period for me. This one reminded me that the seedy underground has always existed. Heroine available at the local chemist shop, brothels, sex slaves, corrupt police officers and murder. And a war will not stop these activities from continuing.

I thought the characters were well drawn and nuanced. Caroline, the high society doctor lady, was probably my favorite. Although, the very handsome Greek (Billy) was a close second. I am looking forward to see how this group of characters grows and continues to solve mysteries during WWI.

The mystery in this story was a little convoluted. As I said above, there was a lot going on in this very short novel. An abusive husband is murdered after gravely injuring his wife. The investigation uncovers many more undesirable activities. While the major characters were well done, the minor characters felt more like caricatures and did not distinguish themselves well in my head. I was not surprised by the guilty party, but did have a hard time figuring out who it was.

I will be looking for future titles in this series.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for my advanced copy!

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American Judas by Mickey Dubrow

From the publisher:

“Seth and Maggie Ginsberg do their best to navigate an oppressive theocracy where fundamental Christianity is the only legal religion, and abortion, homosexuality, and adultery are outlawed. When a co-worker outs Seth as a Jew, Seth escapes to Mexico, while Maggie is sent to a Savior Camp. American Judas is a dystopian tale about a young couple’s life after opportunistic U.S. politicians abolish the wall of separation between Church and State.”

My Review:

A terrifying look at what an American theocracy could be.

This novel was heavily plot-driven, with a lot of message to its readers. The story started out innocuous enough, with just an undercurrent of dread. But it quickly escalated to worst-case scenario and became very grim. As is frequently needed in end-of-world novels, there was certainly some violence, but I would not call it gratuitous. Be forewarned there is some violence.

The author did a good job with interjecting some humor into his story. A few of my personal favorites:

“The Savior camps are not just for lapsed Christians and those afflicted with the disease of homosexuality. They also cure drug addictions, adulterers, Satan worshipers and Liberals.”

“What’s the point of being the damn American Judas if you don’t make it so that a man can drink his beer in peace.”

Tearing down the wall between church and state did not go so well in this world and provided a good reminder in these turbulent times. A state run church is not a new idea in this world, but radically changing the priorities and ideals of a freedom loving country is bound to create some backlash.

At one point, our protagonist Maggie asks Tiffany (an adolescent viewed as an example for all others) “Are you so perfect that you get to decide for other people?” And Tiffany’s answer sums up for me how people can fall into this vicious scenario: “I’m not perfect. Just forgiven.” My belief allows me to make mistakes and make decisions for others I believe are right. Scary stuff.

Overall, I found the pacing of this novel to be engrossing. I turned every page needing to know what happened next. Some aspects of the story were tied up with nice little bows, some aspects were left undone, and some aspects were sped to a hasty conclusion. I was left with a feeling of hope, which I find very important when reading any apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction.

I see this is a debut novel from Mickey Dubrow and I thought it was well-done and timely. I will watch for future titles by this author.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my advanced copy of this book.

And Then You Were Gone by R.J. Jacobs

From the Publisher:

After years of learning how to manage her bipolar disorder, Emily Firestone finally has it under control. Even better, her life is coming together: she’s got a great job, her own place, and a boyfriend, Paolo, who adores her. So when Paolo suggests a weekend sailing trip, Emily agrees—wine, water, and the man she loves? What could be better? But when Emily wakes the morning after they set sail, the boat is still adrift…and Paolo is gone.

A strong swimmer, there’s no way Paolo drowned, but Emily is at a loss for any other explanation. Where else could he have gone? And why? As the hours and days pass by, each moment marking Paolo’s disappearance, Emily’s hard-won stability begins to slip.

But when Emily uncovers evidence suggesting Paolo was murdered, the investigation throws her mania into overdrive, even as she becomes a person of interest in her own personal tragedy. To clear her name, Emily must find the truth—but can she hold onto her own sanity in the process?

This book read more like a cozy mystery, to me, than it did a psychological thriller. I happen to be a fan of cozies in addition to thrillers, so it did not bother this reader.

The amateur sleuth, Emily, struggles with bipolar disease and this is front and center to the narration. While I have little personal experience with this condition, I thoroughly appreciated the unreliability of the narrator due to her own questioning of her sanity and interpretation of events. During a romantic overnight trip on a boat, Emily’s boyfriend mysteriously disappears. She becomes suspect number one, and sets off on a self-destructive quest to clear her name. Due to some poor personal choices, she loses her job and ends up living at her mom’s house, so she has plenty of time to conduct her own investigation. She finds a willing sidekick in a friend of her missing boyfriend.
The majority of the violence happens off-screen. A boyfriend disappears, a body is discovered, and Emily hears secondhand about a potential serial killer in her area complete with some of the violence that has transpired.

For a plot-driven novel, there was a lot of inner monologue presented. These thoughts provide a lot of the background to the story. I did not find these to be very distracting, but neither did I find them showing growth in Emily.

I liked the solution to this mystery. I felt like it was a little rushed at the end, the final solution being sprung on the reader with fewer hints/clues than I would have liked. There was a lovely red herring though!

Overall, I thought this was a well-done debut novel. I read somewhere that this may be the beginning of a series, I hope that means we will get to see more of Emily in future installments. I will absolutely read the next book this author publishes.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read an advance copy of this book.

Into the Fire by Sonia Orchard

From the publisher:

A year after her best friend died in a house fire, Lara can’t come to terms with the loss. Logic says there was no more she could have done to save the mercurial and unhappy Alice, but Lara can’t escape the feeling that she is somehow to blame for the tragedy.

She spends a weekend at the rebuilt house with Alice’s charismatic widower, Crow, and his three young children. Rummaging through the remains of their shared past, Lara reveals a friendship with Alice that was as troubled as it was intense. But beneath the surface is a darker, more unsettling secret waiting to be exposed.

 

A realistic look at friendship. The lives of Alice and Lara came together and grew apart over the span of more than a decade as we explore Lara’s views, highs and lows of her relationship with Alice. I found the prose meandering (in a good way), the characters became real people and the pacing made the story. I felt this was more realistic or literary fiction than mystery or thriller. While there was a little mystery woven into the plot, I found it much more a story about finding closure than about finding the answer.

Told in first person through Lara’s eyes, we are introduced to a grieving woman who is coming to terms with the loss of her closest friend. As she spends the weekend with her late friend, Alice’s husband and children, Lara reminisces of her times with Alice. She remembers good times and bad times, arguments and joys. Throughout it all, the author orients us solidly in Australia: “The moon is not yet visible in the sky, I can’t see more than a metre off the side of the road, just the poa grasses lining the edge of the dirt and the palsied limbs of the stringybarks jutting overhead, bleached white in the headlights.”

While flawed, I found I cared about the characters and wanted to know more about them. As the narrator, Lara had secrets from the reader, but we also saw the most growth in her character. At the beginning of her friendship with Lara, she was in college and trying to find herself. Later, she was trying to figure out who she was apart from Alice and at the end we know she is going to discover a self without Alice. We know because we have faith in the growth and changes she has already experienced. I would love to access to Alice’s journals and see how her mind was working throughout the story. I couldn’t decide if I liked Crow or not, but I am pretty sure that is what he would prefer. He was a person and I certainly felt I could be angry with him, laugh with him and sympathize with him at different points in the story.

At the end of chapter 3, Lara writes “I was enjoying the kind of serene benevolence that can settle on you like a mist when everything in life seems to be in a perfect equilibrium.” At just 10% into the novel, this was exactly how I felt. There was a comfortable feel to the narrative and the story. We knew things were not going to stay that way, but for the moment, life was good. The path we follow from college to adulthood has detours and bumps galore, but all relatable. After a traumatic loss, our minds reel and will flit from one memory to the next, picking apart the details of what was important and what we may have done wrong. A year removed from the accident did distance both the reader and the narrator from some of the fresh emotions occurring closer to the death, but even muted, they were there.

Interspersed throughout the story there were some interesting psychological theories and ideas. I found the one about the differences between male friendships and female friendships sticking with me. The basis of friendship is an interesting topic and the differences between men and women is certainly a global one. The comment towards the end “We were not the women we once were, and we were the ones who could best bear witness to that change. Sad as it was, it was easier, simply, to look away.” also struck a chord with me. We depend on people to know us at our best and our worst. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the ones we love at their worst and it is easier to busy ourselves with the day-to-day of our own lives. It is also sometimes easier to avoid those who may notice we are not living our best lives.

I enjoyed this excursion down under. I think I may need to go call my best friend and remind her that I love her! I found I could not quite give this the full five stars because of the handling of the abortion. It may be my puritanical, prudish, American self, but the cavalier almost brazen way the abortion was discussed and dealt with rubbed me the wrong way.  I found myself thinking about this book and its characters long after I set the book down for the day. Thank you to NetGalley for providing this reader a new book and introducing her to a new author!

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Everything Here is Beautiful is a lovely examination of mental illness and its effects on various relationships.  The story focuses on two sisters, one of whom lives with an unspecified mental illness (is it bipolar disorder? maybe it’s schizophrenia).  Told through various points of view, the illness plays a role in each character’s life.

Miranda and Lucia are Chinese-American sisters.  Miranda, the elder, is the responsible, practical sister.  While the younger Lucia has far more eccentricities.  And is battling with mental illness.  After the death of their mother, they are each other’s only family.  The struggles between these two sisters felt genuine on every page.

While the other characters in this book, especially Manuel and Yonah, are well-drawn and genuine, the sisters stole the show for me. The plight of each of these characters brought the story more devastatingly real.

This was a beautiful tale shedding light onto the plight of family’s facing mental illness.

 

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce

Another haunting read.  This one with an actual ghost.  The Afterlives is a subtle blend of technological fiction and an investigation into life after death.  When Jim Byrd dies (for several minutes), he sees “nothing, no lights, no tunnel, no angels.” This sends him on a quest to investigate the afterlife.

This story takes place in the near future and deals with some technological fiction including a phone app that monitors Jim’s heart and guest lectures from holograms.  These technological innovations play only a supporting role in the book, but they are there and for me, make “the machine” more plausible.

While Jim and his wife, Annie, are exploring possible answers to their big philosophical questions, they track down and find a woman who claims to have invented a machine that allows people to communicate with dead loved ones.  Her explanation is that people are only ever 93% in this world anyhow.  A stretch, but interesting nonetheless.

Between Jim’s existential wanderings, there is an older story of the ghost before she was a ghost.  I found myself looking forward to these interludes.  The dead woman’s story is told through multiple perspectives, truly giving the reader a sense of her time and place in history.  The tying together of past and future was handled masterfully.

While the characters were delightfully flawed, I found them to be believable and their quest an entertaining one.  As a person who has experienced loss, I find talk of the next life or what happens after our bodies are no longer viable, fascinating.  The concept that we are only ever 93% in this world was difficult for me to grasp.  But I do find it sticks with me as I spend more time mulling it over.

This was Pierce’s debut novel, and I will keep him on my radar for future adventures.

Reading by candlelight

I may need to stop paying my electric bill periodically.  Every few years, we experience a large enough storm to knock out my power for several hours (or days).  During these hours, I find myself settling into a candlelit atmosphere and opening a new book.  This year, I was fortunate enough to have a copy of Jesym Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing on hand.

The hype around this book was huge.  Everyone was talking about it.  It won the National Book Award, was nominated for a slew of other awards and made my to read list when it was long listed for the Morning News’s Tournament of Books.  It was short listed long before my copy became available at the library , but such is the life of an avid library patron.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a contemporary look at impoverished life in the southern United States.  At it’s  heart, it is a tale about a dysfunctional African American family struggling through life.  Leonie is a drug-addicted mother living with her parent waiting to reunite with her children’s father.  Jojo is a 13-year-old trying to find his place in the world; simultaneously being a child and raising his 3-year-old sister.  Mam and Pop, Leonie’s parents have stories to tell as well.  Ward weaves this story together through alternating points of view of Jojo and Leonie with the occasional assistance of a ghost named Richie.

The prose was absolutely lyrical.  My own reading, in a mostly dark living room with the flickering candlelight may have helped make this ghost story even more haunting and emotional.

While the story takes us on a road trip through Mississippi, it is mostly a character-driven story.  The history of all involved is spooned out quietly and revealed in beautiful, if heartbreaking ways.

This was not a long book (285 pages), but it had depth.  My power was restored before I finished the book, but the haunted feelings remained.  I have previously read Dr. Zhivago and Fall on Your Knees by candlelight and both have certainly remained in my good favor long after I closed the covers.  Not to worry, I will continue to pay my bills, but maybe I will remember to unplug once in awhile and read a new book by candlelight.