Book Reviews by vicki rock

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A Dangerous Business

by

Jane Smiley, Knopf

Published

December 6, 2022

224

Pages

Book cover image for A Dangerous Business

It is 1851 in Monterey, California. Ever since her husband, Peter, was killed in a bar fight, Eliza Cargill, who goes by the last name Ripple, has been working in a brothel. Eliza has attained what few women have: financial security.

It seems like a better life. The madam, Mrs. Parks, is kind. But then dead bodies of young women start appearing outside of town. The victims are all prostitutes. Eliza and her friend, Jean MacPherson, try to piece together an array of clues to catch the killer.

Eliza and Jean are determined not just to survive, but to find their way in a lawless town on the fringes of the Wild West. As Mrs. Parks says, "Everyone knows that this is a dangerous business, but between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Mrs. Parks runs a tight ship and her doorman Carlos keep the girls safe.

As one would expect, the historical aspect is nicely done, with her detailed descriptions, Smiley evokes the town in Gold Rush California. As for the mystery itself, it mainly involves Eliza and Jean following their clients until the resolution. By the middle of the book, I was tired of the descriptions of Eliza’s interactions with client. Although it is a relatively short book, that was too drawn-out.

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including “A Thousand Acres,” my favorite of her books. It won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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 Twist of a Knife

by

Anthony Horowitz, Harper

Published

November 15, 2022

384

Pages

Book cover image for The Twist of a Knife

Author Anthony Horowitz places himself in the role of narrator in this series of novels. The fictional Horowitz followed Detective Daniel Hawthorne on three cases, and these investigations have resulted in three books.

Hawthorne is now a private investigator. As this fourth novel opens, Hawthorne wants Horowitz to write another book, but Horowitz tells him that their deal is over. The truth is that Horowitz has other things on his mind.

His new play, a thriller called Mindgame, is about to open at the Vaudeville Theater in London’s West End after a successful run in smaller cities. Ewan Lloyd is the director. Jordan Williams, who is the leading actor, accidentally injures Sky Palmer, an actress.

Not surprisingly, Hawthorne declines a ticket to the opening night. Then critics pan the play. In particular, Sunday Times critic Harriet Throsby gives it a savage review, focusing particularly on the writing. The next day, Throsby is fatally stabbed with an ornamental dagger which belongs to Horowitz.

Detective Inspector Cara Grunshaw and Detective Constable Derek Mills arrest Horowitz. Grunshaw carries a grudge against him from her failure to solve the case described in the second Hawthorne adventure, “The Sentence is Death.” When he is allowed to make a phone call, he calls Hawthorne. When Horowitz is released, he and Hawthorne have 48 hours to figure out who killed Throsby.

This plot structure works well and Hawthorne’s deductive skills are once again on display. As the threat to Horowitz increases, the reader is left guessing until the end. The identity of the killer came as a complete surprise to me. This is a fun series, but “The Twist of a Knife” can be read as a stand-alone.

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.

Blackwater Falls

by

Ausma Zehanat Khan, Minotaur Books

Published

November 8, 2022

384

Pages

Book cover image for Blackwater Falls

This is the first in a new crime series introducing Detective Inaya Rahman, who is part of the Community Response Unit. Girls from immigrant communities have been disappearing for months in the Colorado town of Blackwater Falls, but Addison Grant, the local sheriff, is slow to act. Then the body of a student and refugee, Syrian teenager Razan Elkader, is positioned deliberately in a mosque. Detective Inaya Rahman and Lieutenant Waqas Seif of the Denver Police are assigned to investigate Razan’s murder. They uncover a link to other missing and murdered girls. But as Inaya gets closer to the truth, Seif finds ways to obstruct the investigation. Inaya turns to her female colleagues, attorney Areesha Adams and Detective Catalina Hernandez, for help.

The lead characters are interesting, but unfortunately there are shortcomings in this novel. The first comes quickly, when Inaya faints at a crime scene. The East Asian women are stereotypically depicted and the story moves slowly until it just bogs down.

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.

Livid

by

Patricia Cornwell, Grand Central Publishing

Published

October 25, 2022

368

Pages

Book cover image for Livid

Chief medical examiner Kay Scarpetta wasn’t working in Virginia when April Tupelo’s body was found. But the medical examiner who did the autopsy has since died. So Scarpetta has to testify in the trial against April’s fiancé, Gilbert Hooke.

Scarpetta doesn’t think that April was murdered, so Bose Flagler, the prosecutor, goes after Scarpetta’s credibility. Judge Annie Chilton is presiding. She and Scarpetta have known each other since law school.

When Scarpetta is done testifying, she learns that the judge’s sister has been found dead. Rachael Stanwyck was the press secretary for the CIA. She has been going through a nasty divorce from Lance Stanwyck and has been staying with her sister. Blaise Fruge is the lead investigator. Police think it is a home invasion gone bad. But when Scarpetta arrives outside the house, she notices dead bugs and birds.

Scarpetta is still having trouble with her predecessor Elvin Reddy, who is now the health commissioner, and her secretary Maggie Cutbrush, who is friends with Reddy. Scarpetta’s husband, Benton Wesley, and her niece, Lucy Farinelli, a computer expert, think Stanwyck’s murder is more complicated than it seems.

Patricia Cornwell's strength is how she writes about intricate details of forensic examinations. She excels at explaining scientific and technological advances. The characters are outstanding, with a underlying theme of family. This scenario is unusual, with twists and turns, but the story lines are tied together well. This is the 26th in the series and it can be read without first reading the others.

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.

The Boys from Biloxi

by

John Grisham, Doubleday

Published

October 18, 2022

465

Pages

Book cover image for The Boys from Biloxi

Jesse Rudy is a legendary prosecutor in Biloxi, Mississippi, determined to clean up the Coast. The biggest obstacles are the corrupt politicians and police.

Lance Malco, is the head of Biloxi’s criminal underground, the Dixie Mafia. He owns multiple nightclubs. Sheriff Albert Bowman is crooked.

Their sons, Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco, were childhood friends and classmates. But as teenagers, their lives took them in different directions. Keith goes on to law school and later marries Ainsley Hart. Hugh prefers the nightlife and works in his father’s clubs.

Hugh eventually heads his father’s businesses. Keith follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes the district attorney.

This book showcases good versus evil in a slow burn. The characters are excellent. John Grisham is always an engaging storyteller, but in this one, the plot is one note.

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.

Signal Fires

by

Dani Shapiro, Knopf

Published

October 18, 2022

240

Pages

Book cover image for Signal Fires

One summer night in 1985, teenagers Misty Zimmerman, Sarah Wilf and Sarah’s brother, Theo have been drinking. Theo is driving without even a learner’s permit.

The teens are in a crash. Benjamin Wilf, Sarah and Theo’s father, is a pulmonologist. The wreck happens right outside their home. Sarah runs for her father and tells him that Misty is injured.

Misty dies. Sarah claims she was driving. The Wilfs don’t talk about the accident. Fast forward in time. Sarah is a screenwriter, but is an alcoholic. Theo is a chef. He hasn’t been in contact with the family in years.

The Shenkmans move in across the street from the Wilfs. The son, Waldo, is 10. Ben is now retired. Mimi Wilf, his wife, is declining. Waldo’s father thinks Waldo is wasting his time with his interest in astronomy. Waldo may have autism. Waldo forms a connection with Ben that helps him when he feels misunderstood.

Shapiro makes the point that we are all connected. There isn’t much of a plot and the story is slow-moving. The book’s focus is how the characters deal with intense feelings of grief, regret and loneliness over a 35-year period.

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 Last Chairlift

by

John Irving, Simon & Schuster

Published

October 18, 2022

912

Pages

Book cover image for The Last Chairlift

In 1941 in Aspen, Colorado, Rachel Brewster is a slalom skier at the National Downhill and Slalom Championships.

Her nickname is Little Ray. She doesn’t place in the event. When she gets pregnant, Little Ray goes home to New England. After giving birth to a son, Adam, she becomes a ski instructor. She drops out of college.

Adam lives with his grandparents because his mother spends six months a year skiing. He and his older cousin Nora are mutually resistant to learning to ski in a family of avid skiers.

Adam’s family won’t tell him about his father. He begins seeing ghosts when he is a teenager. From the start, they look like black-and-white photographs of people he didn’t know and places he hasn’t been.

Years later, looking for answers as to who fathered him, Adam goes to the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, where he was conceived. Adam is a novelist and screenwriter.

Irving’s publisher said he has called this his last long novel. It is his first novel in seven years and the first he’s written that he would call “a ghost story.” It is also a love story and a story of sexual politics.

This is much too long-winded and the plot is weak. I found that his continued use of terms for people, like “the snowshoer,” instead of their names, to be annoying. While this was not my favorite of John Irving’s novels, two of his, “The World According to Garp” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” are on my list of the best books that I’ve ever read. His novels are a plea for tolerance. Between the length and the repetition in the writing, many readers will want to pass on this one.

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.

The Other Side of Night

by

Adam Hamdy, Atria Books

Published

October 11, 2022

304

Pages

Book cover image for The Other Side of Night

David Asha wrote about his biggest regret: his sudden separation from his son, Elliot. In his grief, David tells readers about a woman who destroyed his son’s life, then redeemed it. That woman was Harriet Kealty, who was fired from the police force in Staffordshire, England.

The story shifts to Harriet, called Harri, who finds a curious inscription in an old library book. Written inside is a plea: “Help me, he’s trying to kill me.” Who wrote this note? Who is “he”? Is it a real cry for help or a joke?

This note leads Harri to Asha, who was last seen stepping off a cliff. Police suspect he couldn’t cope after his wife’s sudden death. Still, why would this man kill himself and leave behind his 10-year-old son?

Soon Harri’s attention zeroes in on a person she knows all too well: Ben Elmys. She and Elmys were dating, but he broke up with her on their third date. He would only say that he had to be with an ill friend.

The Ashas and Elmys were physicists. David and Elizabeth Asha named Elmys as Elliot’s guardian in case they both died. Elizabeth died of cancer. She was the last person who checked out the library book.

Harri’s former partner, Detective Sergeant Sabih Khan, thinks she shouldn’t be looking into the case, but he agrees to help. Harri was accused of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Alan Munro. Court records are interspersed with the narrative. There is also a transcript of a video made 11 years later.

The main question of the novel is what would you do to save someone you loved? The characters are amazing and the writing is excellent. There are plot twists that will have you wondering what is going on? The author is quoted in an interview as saying, “You’ll know when you’ve reached the other side of night.”

This will be on many best books of the year lists. You don’t want to miss it.

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.

Dinosaurs

by

Lydia Millet, W. W. Norton & Company

Published

October 11, 2022

240

Pages

Book cover image for Dinosaurs

Gil moves from New York to Phoenix, Arizona. He has movers transport his things, but he hikes the distance himself. It takes almost five months.

The vacant house beside his is built with one wall of glass. Remote control screens can be lowered to protect against the sun. Gil wonders who would want to live there. One day, a family of a man, a woman, a boy and a girl move in.

One day the woman and children bring him a pie. Her name is Ardis. She is a psychotherapist. The children are Clem and Tom. Her husband is Ted, who works on funding infrastructure projects in other countries. Gil becomes friends with the family.

There isn’t much of a plot and it is slow-moving. It is basically about Gil’s interactions with others to show how people are interconnected.

Lydia Millet has written more than a dozen novels and story collections, often about the ties between people and other animals and the crisis of extinction. Her last novel, “A Children’s Bible,” published in 2020, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.

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.

Our Missing Hearts

by

Celeste Ng, Penguin Press

Published

October 4, 2022

352

Pages

Book cover image for Our Missing Hearts

This is set in a dystopian near future in which Asian Americans are regarded with scorn and mistrust. Under the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, authorities are allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin.

Noah Gardner is 12. He lives with his father, Ethan Gardner, a former linguist who now shelves books in Harvard University’s library. Noah was called Bird until his mother left three years ago. Bird knows not to stand out too much.

Libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret Miu, a Chinese American poet. Bird’s father even burned her books. Margaret wrote a poem that became a rallying cry for those protesting PACT.

Students have to recite the PACT pledge at the start of every school day. Bird’s best friend, Sadie Greenstein, lives with foster parents because her parents were dissidents. Then Sadie disappears. Under PACT, protests are banned. But lately, weird stunts aimed against PACT have been happening. Bird and his father see a sign that reads “Bring back our missing hearts.”

Out of the blue, Bird receives a letter. There is nothing in it except a drawing of cats. Since the letter was addressed to Bird, he believes it is from his mother. Bird decides to find her. He keeps seeing “missing hearts” messages. Bird’s journey will take him back to the folktales she told him as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken.

“Our Missing Hearts” is about how some people become afraid of others. But the underlying story is about parents love for their children. In the author's notes Celeste Ng writes, “Bird and Margaret's world isn't exactly our world, but it isn't not ours, either." This is easily one of the best novels of the year. It is powerful, beautifully written and deeply moving.

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.

Mad Honey

by

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, Ballantine Books

Published

October 4, 2022

464

Pages

Book cover image for Mad Honey

Olivia McAfee was married to a cardiothoracic surgeon, Braden Fields. They have a son, Asher, and lived in Boston.

Braden was violent and Olivia finally left him. She and Asher moved to Adams, New Hampshire, where they live in the house Olivia grew up in. She took over her late father’s beekeeping business. Asher, 18, is a high school senior. He is co-captain of the hockey team.

Lily Campanello and her mom, Ava, relocate to Adams for her final year of high school. Lily plays the cello and is on the fencing team. Asher and Lily are dating. Maya Banergee is a good friend of both Asher and Lily.

Then one day, Asher is late coming home. He finally calls his mother. Lily is dead and he is being questioned by police. He says Lily was sick at home. He went to check on her and found her at the bottom of the stairs. Lt. Mike Newcomb arrests Asher for murder.

Olivia is adamant that her son didn’t kill Lily. But she would be lying if she didn’t acknowledge that Asher has flashes of his father’s temper. She asks her older brother, Jordan McAfee, to be Asher’s defense attorney. McAfee is one of the most famous defense attorneys in New Hampshire. His wife, Selena, is his investigator. Jordan also appeared as a lawyer in an earlier Picoult book, “Nineteen Minutes,” which is about a school shooting.

Like most of Jodi Picoult’s novels, there is a major twist about halfway in that I did not see coming. This is about love, bigotry, the complexity of relationships, and domestic abuse. As Olivia wonders, where is the line between keeping something private and being dishonest?

“Mad Honey” is very well-written. The characters are excellent and the plotting is skilled. It was very hard to put it down. Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors. I haven’t read anything else by Jennifer Finney Boylan, but will now. In the afterword, they explain how they worked together as the chapters alternate between Olivia’s voice and Lily’s. This is one you don’t want to miss.

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.

Shrines of Gaiety

by

Kate Atkinson, Doubleday

Published

September 27, 2022

416

Pages

Book cover image for Shrines of Gaiety

It is 1926. England is still recovering from World War I. In clubs in Soho, London, there is a new nightlife. Nellie Coker is being released from prison after serving six months for liquor law violations. She is known as a notorious nightclub owner. She owns five, with the jewel in the crown called Amethyst.

Nellie is the mother of six. The eldest, Niven, served in the Somme in World War I. Ramsay is her second son. He is trying to write a novel. She also has four daughters: Edith, Betty, Shirley and Kitty. Edith ran the business while Nellie was in prison. Each of the siblings is in charge of one nightclub.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector John Frobisher is investigating the disappearance of five teenage girls over the last few weeks. He thinks their disappearances are linked to Amethyst.

Freda Murgatroyd and Florence Ingram, both 14, are among the missing. Librarian Gwendolen Kelling goes to Frobisher to report their disappearance. Gwendolen is friends with Freda’s half-sister, Cissy. Gwendolen was an Army nurse during the war. Frobisher asks Gwendolen to go into the Amethyst for one evening to see if the girls are working there.

This is an excellent, complex novel with diverse characters and plots. In addition to the characters, Kate Atkinson does an outstanding job of recreating 1920s London.
This is part literary fiction and part police procedural. I thoroughly enjoyed “Shrines of Gaiety.” It is one of her best novels.

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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