Book Reviews by vicki rock

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The Lioness

by

Chris Bohjalian, Doubleday

Published

May 10, 2022

336

Pages

Book cover image for The Lioness

In 1964, actress Katie Barstow and her new husband, David Hill, owner of a Beverly Hills art gallery, think it will be great to honeymoon in the Serengeti. They bring their Hollywood friends to Tanzania.

Their guests include Katie’s brother, Billy Stepanov, her best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the controversial film Tender Madness. The group of nine nicknames themselves The Lions of Hollywood.

They have an entourage of 17 Kenyans and Tanzanians. Charlie Patton is head of the photo safari. Benjamin Kikwete is one of the rangers. Terrance is one of only three Black guests Benjamin has ever worked for.

The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure with amenities including waterproof canvas bathtubs and a kerosene-powered ice maker. What they get is a kidnapping gone wrong after Russian soldiers storm their camp and take them hostage. “The mantra for most of us? Just stay alive.”

This is told from the perspective of travelers and staff. Each chapter starts with a blurb from newspaper or magazine articles as the stories of their pasts unfold. The multiple characters are distinctive enough to keep track of and their points of view are woven together.

As the number of characters dwindle, readers wonder who will be killed by the kidnappers or attacked by wild animals. Sort of like Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” but with lions.

This is an intense, fast-paced, character-driven novel with a shocking, twist-filled plot. The author gives some clues, but you’ll still be surprised by the revelation of who is behind it and why.

Chris Bohjalian really is a master storyteller and no two of his novels are alike. He is the author of 23 books. This is one of the best of his works and one of the best novels of the year. Don’t miss this one.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Our Little World

by

Karen Winn, Dutton

Published

May 3, 2022

352

Pages

Book cover image for Our Little World

It is June of 1985 in Hammend, New Jersey. Bee Kocsis, 12, will soon be in the seventh grade. Her younger sister, Audrina, seems to effortlessly dazzle wherever she goes. Bee feels that her sister is their parents’ favorite.

The Bakers have just moved in across the street. Dr. Jack Baker is a trauma surgeon from Boston. Fran, his wife, is a nurse. Max is 12 and his sister, Sally, is 4.

One day, Fran takes all four children to Deer Chase Lake. Bee is swimming when Sally disappears. A massive search begins. Bee finds part of the charm bracelet Sally was wearing, but doesn’t turn it in.

When school resumes, Bee is suddenly popular because she is friends with Max and she was at the lake when Sally vanished. Sally’s disappearance is no longer in the news and people are moving on.

This coming-of-age story is about sisterhood, jealousy and family dynamics. At the beginning we are told that Audrina is not alive in the present time, but we are not immediately told how or when she died.

“Our Little World” is beautifully written and poignant. The revelation of the person who abducted Sally is shocking. This is an amazing debut novel.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Remarkably Bright Creatures

by

Shelby Van Pelt, Ecco

Published

May 3, 2022

368

Pages

Book cover image for Remarkably Bright Creatures

After Tova Sullivan’s husband, Will, died of cancer, she began working as a cleaner on the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington.

Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since her son, Erik, 18, vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over 30 years ago. Police believe he killed himself. Tova doesn’t think so.

Marcellus is a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Or, as he thinks, being held captive. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine, but wouldn’t dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors. For starters, he can read. He has lived longer than his anticipated life span of four years.

Tova is 70. She has a supportive group of friends in the small town. She talks to all the creatures in the aquarium, but Marcellus is her favorite. One night, Marcellus gets out of his tank and becomes entangled in power cords in the break room. Tova untangles him.

The third character is Cameron Cassmore, 30, who lives in Modesto, California. He can’t hold a job. His aunt, Jeanne, raised him from the age of nine after his drug-addicted mother, Daphne, left him. Cameron is a self-proclaimed loser and Jeanne is a hoarder.

Neither Cameron nor Jeanne know who his biological father is. But when Jeanne gives Cameron a box of his mother’s things, he finds a photograph of his mother as a teenager hugging a boy, Simon Brinks. The photo was taken in Sowell Bay high school. He also finds Brinks’ class ring. He decides to go to Sowell Bay to find Brinks.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces the truth. And now Marcellus must use every trick he can muster to revel it to Tova before it’s too late.

If you suspend disbelief, this is very enjoyable. It is a charming story of friendship. “Remarkably Bright Creatures” is perfect for readers who like quirky characters.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

The Children on the Hill

by

Jennifer McMahon, Gallery/Scout Press

Published

April 26, 2022

352

Pages

Book cover image for The Children on the Hill

In 2019, Lizzy Shelley, the host of the podcast Monsters Among Us, is traveling to Vermont, where Lauren Schumacher, 13, is missing. Before she disappeared, Lauren told her friends she met a legendary ghost.

Flashback to 1978. Dr. Helen Hildreth, a psychiatrist, is acclaimed for her work with the mentally ill. She is director of the hospital called The Hillside Inn in Vermont.

Her grandchildren, Violet, 13, and Vi’s younger brother, Eric, live with her since their parents died in a vehicle accident. Hildreth occasionally brings home a patient when she thinks it will help in treatment.

Then one day Hildreth brings home a child to stay with the family. Iris does not behave like a normal girl. Still, Vi is thrilled to have a new playmate who is about her age. She and Eric invite Iris to join their Monster Club, where they catalog all kinds of monsters and dream up ways to defeat them. When Iris reveals she can’t remember her past, Vi starts snooping in her grandmother’s notes to find out what is known about Iris.

The chapters alternate between times. In the present, Lizzy explains that they changed their names after something happened. At first she doesn’t say which of the girls she is. Lizzy has a degree in anthropology and psychology, and a master’s in folklore. Ten girls across the country have gone missing, always the night of a full moon. Lizzy thinks her sister is taking them.

About a quarter of the way through the novel, Julia Tetreault is introduced. She wrote about the Hildreths and the mental health center. As Vi wrote, “But you must ask yourself: Who is the real monster? The creature being made, or the one creating it?”

This was inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but it isn’t a horror novel. There are several twists: One I saw coming and others that surprised me. The characters are well developed. The plot builds slowly and races to an amazing ending. Jennifer McMahon’s writing is excellent.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

When We Fell Apart

by

Soon Wiley, Dutton

Published

April 26, 2022

368

Pages

Book cover image for When We Fell Apart

Min Ford was born to an American father and Korean mother. He grew up in California, where he always felt “too Korean” to fit in. He’s moved to Seoul in the hope that exploring his Korean heritage will help him find a sense of purpose. He’s been there for a year and a half.

Kim Yu-jin, his girlfriend, was focused, ambitious and obsessed when she was in high school. She wanted to get into a top university in Seoul and out of her small town. She got into Ewha University, which was her first choice. Yu-jin’s roommates are So-ra, a dance major, and Misaki, who is from a wealthy Japanese family.

Yu-jin’s father is a controlling and powerful government official who becomes Minister for National Defense. He tells her what she must major in at college. After graduation she must apply for the jobs he selects.

The Seoul police inform Min that Yu-jin committed suicide after taking her last university final. They’ve been dating for 10 months. She was 21. He can’t believe it. Devastated, Min throws himself into finding out why. Detective Park is investigating. Min soon suspects that he is being followed.

Yu-jin’s life was much more complex than she chose to reveal. And the more Min learns about her, the more he doubts he ever really knew her at all. Yu-jin’s chapters are told in the first person and reveals what happened. Min’s chapters are written in the third person.

This is about how people can be outsiders, even at home. It is more of a character study and a cultural exploration than a mystery. It is poignant, but is a little long in some places. The scenes of Korea are interesting. This is an impressive debut novel.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Three Debts Paid

by

Anne Perry, Ballantine Books

Published

April 12, 2022

304

Pages

Book cover image for Three Debts Paid

It is 1912 and Professor Nicholas Wolford goes to see barrister Daniel Pitt who was recommended by Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Frobisher. Frobisher and Pitt were friends at the university.

Linus Tolliver accused Wolford of having copied his work. But the charge Wolford is facing is assault for hitting Tolliver after the accusation. Pitts’ friend, Miriam fford Croft, has just returned from studying in Holland and is now the second female pathologist in London. Dr. Evelyn Hall is the first. The women work together.

Pitt visits Miriam at work. She and Hall have just started the autopsy of a murdered young woman, Lena Madden. A similar body was brought in six days earlier. That victim was Sandrine Bernard. The deceased women don’t seem to have any connection.

Frobisher is leading the search for the killer. He is assisted by Sgt. Billy Bremner. The murders happen on rainy nights, but Frobisher knows the victims must have something in common beyond the weather.

The third murder breaks the pattern because the victim is a man: Roger Haviland, a senior banker. Miriam, Daniel, and Ian find themselves questioning everything. Is the “Rainy-day Slasher,” as the newspapers have dubbed the killer, really just one person? And what do the victims have in common?

Pitt’s father, Sir Thomas Pitt, is head of the Special Branch. His mother, Charlotte, assisted in investigations. When Frobisher’s superiors tell him to stop looking into Haviland’s background, Inspector Pitt says he will look into it.

This is the fifth installment in the Daniel Pitt series. Perry makes the time period come alive. The why behind the murders is even more interesting than the identity of the killer. The characters seem real. Mystery and historical fiction fans will enjoy this.


In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Fierce Poison

by

Will Thomas, Minotaur Books

Published

April 12, 2022

304

Pages

Book cover image for Fierce Poison

By 1883, Private Enquiry agent Cyrus Barker has just about seen it all―he's been attacked by assassins, his office has been bombed, and people have nearly killed his dog. Thomas Llewelyn, his partner, thinks nothing new can happen.

But never before has a potential client dropped dead in Barker’s office. When Roland Fitzhugh, Member of Parliament for Shoreditch, arrives to consult Barker and Llewelyn, he is visibly ill. Within seconds, he falls to the floor, dead.

Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Terence Poole is sent to the agency. Fitzhugh had gone to see Poole right before he went to Barker’s office. He thought he had been poisoned. Poole didn’t believe him.

They soon learn that Fitzhugh’s been poisoned with a cyanide-laced raspberry tart. Then a pie laced with arsenic poisons the Burke family in the East End: Clarence and Judy and sons Peter, 14, and Tommy, 10. Only the baby is spared.

Labelled the Mad Pie Man by the press, Barker and Llewelyn are hired by former Prime Minister William Gladstone to find out who killed Shoreditch, the House of Commons newest member.

But before they can even begin, they find that they themselves are the latest target. Jacob Maccabee, who is Barker's butler, and Barker’s dog are poisoned and other traps are discovered at their home. On the run, Barker and Llewelyn must uncover the threads that connect these acts.

This is well-plotted. The murderer was a total surprise, but the reveal makes sense. The main characters are very likable. This is the 13th in the series, but can be read as a stand-alone historical mystery.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

The Missing Piece

by

John Lescroart , Atria Books

Published

March 29, 2022

304

Pages

Book cover image for The Missing Piece

Eleven years ago, Paul Riley was convicted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Dana Rush. San Francisco District Attorney Wes Farrell was the prosecutor.

Farrell is now in a private law firm of Freeman, Farrell, Hardy & Roake, where Dismas Hardy is the managing partner.

Riley is released from prison because the Exoneration Initiative uncovered evidence that exonerated him. Deacon Moore, who is mentally challenged, committed a similar crime and is now the suspect. Riley is having financial trouble because he can’t get a good paying job. He starts committing burglaries.

Riley has just returned home from a burglary when he is fatally shot. Homicide Detectives Ken Yamashiro and Eric Waverly go to the scene. James Riley, his father, says he saw the shooter; it was Doug Rush, Dana’s father. When Yamashiro and Waverly arrest Rush, he assaults them and the detectives fight back. But Waverly continues to hit and to kick Rush after he is handcuffed.

Rush asks Farrell to represent him. When he is released on bail, Rush doesn’t show up for his preliminary hearing. At a loss, Farrell and Hardy ask Abraham Glitsky, who retired from homicide and is a private investigator, to track down Rush. This leads Glitsky down several paths, including Rush’s two girlfriends, his motorcycle buddies and members of the Exoneration Initiative.

This is the 19th in a very good legal and police procedural series with engaging characters. The novel starts off featuring Farrell, then switches seamlessly to Glitsky. Lescroart focuses on complex themes; in this case the moral issue of what if someone released on a technicality after being convicted of murder was, in fact, guilty.

The plotting is good with some misdirection, although it was easy to figure out who the killer is. “The Missing Piece” can be read without reading the others in the series.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

The Recovery Agent

by

Janet Evanovich, Atria Books

Published

March 22, 2022

320

Pages

Book cover image for The Recovery Agent

Gabriela Rose is a recovery agent hired to find missing assets. She deals mainly with insurance fraud.

As the story opens, she is in an Ecuadorian rainforest. She was hired to find Henry Dodge, an archeologist, and retrieve an amulet.

When she gets back to an area with cell phone service, she gets a call from her mother, Maeberry Rose. Her maternal grandmother, Fanny, lives with her parents in Scoon, a South Carolina coastal town that was heavily damaged in a hurricane. A developer is trying to buy the properties. Gabriela agrees to go see them.

Fanny regularly gets messages from a spirit named Annie. She said Annie gave her a plan to save the town. She knows where a map is to the Ring of Solomon and the lost treasure of Cortez. But Gabriela’s ex-husband Rafer Jones owns the house where the map is supposedly hidden. They divorced a week before their second wedding anniversary.

They find the map, but Rafer insists on going with Gabriela to the jungles of Peru to try to find the treasure. They hire Pepe and Caballo as their guides. Gabriela is the first to see two men following them. They work for El Dragon, a drug lord, who is also after the Ring of Solomon.

This is a quick, light-hearted read. The characters are amusing. This book seems very similar to Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books and is the first in a new series. In addition to the 28 Plum novels, she has coauthored the Fox and O’Hare series, the Knight and Moon series, the Lizzy and Diesel series, the Alexandra Barnaby novels, and a graphic novel.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader’s edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Ocean State

by

Stewart O'Nan , Grove Press

Published

March 15, 2022

240

Pages

Book cover image for Ocean State

In the first line, Marie Oliviera, the narrator, says that when she was thirteen and in the eighth grade, her older sister, Angel, helped kill another girl.

This is set in 2009, in Ashaway, a small town on the Rhode Island coast. Their mother, Carol, is a nurse’s aide whose talent is finding new boyfriends. Their parents are divorced, but the girls are with their father, Frank, every other weekend. Their parents are alcoholics.

Beatriz “Birdy” Alves, the victim, and Angel love the same teenage boy, Myles Parrish. Angel and Myles have been together for three years. What happens is told through alternating perspectives of Angel, Birdy, Carol and Marie. Marie is looking back from present day.

This is character-driven. The plot is solid, but predictable. It is a story of obsessiveness and compulsive behavior. It seems to be more like young adult fiction than a novel.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader’s edition of this book was provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for a review.

Nine Lives

by

Peter Swanson, William Morrow

Published

March 15, 2022

336

Pages

Book cover image for Nine Lives

Nine people receive a list with their names on it in the mail. Nothing else; just a list of names on a single sheet of paper.

As far as they know, none of the nine people have ever met the others on the list. They have various careers including an aspiring actor, a singer-songwriter, an English professor and an oncology nurse.

Frank Hopkins, 72, is the first on the list to be murdered. He is forcibly drowned on a beach in Kennewick, Maine. While Detective Sam Hamilton first investigates, the state police and the FBI soon take over the case. Hamilton keeps looking into it.

Then, Matthew Beaumont is shot in the back while running through his neighborhood in Dartford, Mass. FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who is on the list herself, is determined to find out who is killing people. She is pulled from the case and put under protection. The FBI finds everybody on the list, except for Alison Horne.

The alternating chapters with multiple points of view show how the investigation impacts the people on the list. This pays homage to the Agatha Christie mystery “And Then There Were None.” It is unusual and entertaining. The ending is surprising.

Swanson is also the author of “Eight Perfect Murders.”

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader’s edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Booth

by

Karen Joy Fowler, G.P. Putnam's Sons

Published

March 8, 2022

480

Pages

Book cover image for Booth

In 1822, a family moves into an isolated cabin 30 miles northeast of Baltimore. Junius and Mary Ann Booth eventually have 10 children.

Junius Booth is a celebrated Shakespearean actor. But he is mentally unstable. He tours without his wife for nine months a year, leaving his alcoholic father with her. Junius is also an alcoholic and a bigamist.

Rosalie, the oldest girl, ends up being the mother figure in the family. She has scoliosis. The family is vegetarian. While they claim to be anti-slavery, they have two slaves. They move from rural Maryland to Baltimore in 1846, when John is seven. Three of the boys, Junius Jr., Edwin and John, become actors. John becomes pro-slavery and pro-secessionist.

The story is told from multiple points of view. Interspersed are chapters summarizing President Lincoln’s life. While it is about John Wilkes Booth, the novel is more about his family.

It is very slow-moving, especially in the early chapters. The strength of the novel is the good historical context. But I expected to learn more about John Wilkes Booth and the reasoning behind what he did. Fans of historical fiction may enjoy it, but the pace was too slow and it was too long for me.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader’s edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review

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