Friday, January 3, 2020

New Books for a New Year

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Lifestyle blogger Alix Chamberlain, her newscaster husband and two daughters have moved from Manhattan to Philadelphia where Alix is writing her book on the art of letter writing, based on the letters she has handwritten over the years, while pretending to still live in Manhattan.  Alix is having a hard time assimilating into her new city, mostly because of her unwillingness to accept that any place other than New York could be home, finds herself relying more and more on her young African American babysitter, 26-year-old Emira, to care for her precocious three-year-old Briar.  The Temple graduate is about to lose her health insurance and though she adores Briar, often feels embarrassed to be “just a baby-sitter”.  The family relies heavily on Emira, though, and one night Alix calls her after ten o’clock, to take Briar to the grocery store while Alix and her husband deal with a situation at home.  Harassed by a security guard at the upscale store, Emira would rather the incident go away, but a young man, Kelley, has captured the incident on his cell phone.  After Emira runs into him on the subway, several days later, the two begin to date and develop a serious relationship only to learn that Kelley and Alix share a past that puts Emira in an impossible situation, but allows her to take a broader view of her own situation.  Full of heart and wisdom, viewing situations from many different angles, this debut novel is written with the assurance of a seasoned author.

The Prized Girl by Amy K. Green
When a former child beauty pageant queen, Jenny, is found raped and murdered, her small town takes the loss personally and vilifies her older half-sister Virginia for not being a better sister and role model, a persona she willingly takes on rather than expose her step-mother as a drunken lush and her father as uncaring, or take a chance of the town finding out about her own secrets.  Virginia has her own suspicions as to Jenny’s death, and as she begins her own investigation, her story with the town that has kept its hold on her, begins to unravel, a story that begins to parallel that of Jenny’s, making Virginia feel all the more responsible for not protecting Jenny.  The story is told in two narratives: from Jenny’s in the days leading up to her murder and Virginia’s, as she follows not only her sister’s final days, but her own past in a town that protects its own and doesn’t want to see the evil that lives among them.  A disturbing but gripping psychological debut. 

The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

Copenhagen Police investigator Jeepe Korner and his partner Anette Werner investigate the death of a young woman whose face was heavily mutilated, but in an intricate design in this Danish debut.  Twenty-one-year-old Julie Stender is found in her apartment, one of three in a building owned by retired professor cum mystery author Esther DeLaurenti, and Julie’s death eerily mimics the plot in Esther’s current work in progress.  As Jeepe and Anette investigate, they learn that the young woman had accumulated many secrets in her short life, but so did those around her, including her father, and Kirstoffer, a young singing teacher whom Esther has befriended, and who dated Julie for a short while.  Jeepe is a bit of a sad figure, reeling from his recent divorce, and struggling with a bad back and pain pills, but there is something appealing about him as he fights his way back to life; by contrast, Anette is gregarious, and sometimes abrasive, but for the most part, the two complement each other well.  Not as dark as many Nordic Noirs, this book reads more like an English police procedural.  The investigation, for the most part, is well plotted, though there are a couple of head scratching moments --- how’d they miss that? --- and the last quarter of the book feels a bit overstuffed as the author tries to get all the pieces needed for the final confrontation in; some of these bits were subtle earlier in the book, maybe a little too subtle.  Overall, though, Engberg is a debut author worth watching, with lively prose, an off-beat sense of humor, and a forward moving plot.

The Other People C.J. Tudor
On his way home from work one night two years ago, Gabe sees his five-year-old daughter Izzy, looking out the back window of the car ahead of him saying “Daddy”.  He tries to catch up with the car, but loses it; later he is told he must have been seeing things because his wife and daughter were killed that night in their home; Gabe doesn’t believe Izzy is dead, he was too distraught to identify his family, and now spends his time driving on the M1 in search of someone who saw something.  On a tip from a man called the Samaritan, he finds the car from that night submerged in a pond, and is more convinced than ever that Izzy was in that car.  An underground network known as The Other People provides alternative justice and provides Gabe hope, but their help comes at a very high price.  Fran is on the run with a girl named Alice who has night terrors and visions that horrify the young girl, and seem to have a connection to Gabe. This fast-paced, horrifying novel with a touch of the supernatural will appeal to fans of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Paul Tremblay.

Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown
Alice and her husband Nate have just bought a fixer upper in the suburbs of New York City.  No longer working for a high power publicity firm, Alice is at odds about the move, having a baby, and starting the novel she always professed she wanted to write.  Nate continues along as, in his mind, this is what they both wanted, and this is what they have been planning for, continuing to commute for his job, studying for exams that will assure him a higher position in the company.  The discovery of old magazines and a heavily annotated cookbook left in the basement by Nellie, the previous owner of the home, makes Alice realize she is not alone in her struggles with her strong-willed, ambitious husband.  Told in alternating narratives: Alice’s in the present day and Nellie’s, mid-20th century, connected by the recipes Nellie made and Alice is now trying, the women’s parallel stories unfold, with Alice’s next door neighbor Sally, who was a child when she knew Nellie, filling in some of the gaps, providing letter’s Nellie wrote to her mother and never mailed.  Both Alice and Nellie are complex, fully drawn, brave women, struggling with their roles as wives and women in the social construct of their time, in this novel explores women’s roles, ending with a surprise, and somewhat sinister ending.

Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald
Henny has lived in the same small Oregon town for her entire life; she never had any desire to leave, and being dead doesn’t change her opinions: she wants to stay.  She was quite content running the Pine Away Motel with one her best high school friends, MacKenzie, but one night is hit by a truck and killed.  She is not ready to be dead, in her early thirties, her father isn’t ready for her to be dead, and neither are her friends,  but what no one but Henny knows is, she is still hanging around: she can still see, her, and touch her friends, but she’s pretty sure they can’t see her.  Henny roams around, looking for her body, hoping to reunite with it and return to her life as it was.  When she realizes that isn’t to be, she continues hanging with friends and family, watching them, and perhaps helping them, grieve for their friend, and eventually heal from her loss.  Perfect for book groups and fans of Fannie Flagg.

The Janes by Louisa Luna
Alice Vega is suspicious---and rightfully so, when she is called to consult on a case with the San Diego police---and is to be paid in cash.  Two young teenage girls have been found murdered near a border tunnel, and the police suspect human trafficking and drug running.  Vega, as a private eye, has more latitude than the police do, can go more places than they can, and ask all the hard questions.  She calls on her sometimes partner Cap who is still recovering, along with his teenage daughter, from the last investigation he assisted Vega with.  In San Diego, the two follow a trail of mostly unwitting participants until they uncover a ring of evil and greed that goes deeper and stretches further than first glance.  This gritty novel plums not only depths of just how evil can be, what people are willing to do for money without asking too many question, as well as the redemptive nature of the human heart, and the persistence of hope.

Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis
Seventy-two-year-old Cloris Waldrip and her band have been looking forward to August 31, 1986: the Texas couple is schedule to take a small plane to a cabin in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana for a few days; the plane crashes killing the pilot and Cloris’s husband, leaving her to try and escape the wilderness. Ranger Debra Lewis is drinking herself to death as quickly as she can after learning her husband was married to two other women, but she is bound and determined to find the 72-year-old Methodist lady who has survived the plane crash, even after the highers-up decide even if Cloris survived the crash, there is no way she would still be alive.  Cloris, taking what she can from the plane, wanders the mountains, surviving on her wits and faith, finding companionship from an unexpected place.  From the beginning, readers know Cloris has survived and is living in a home in Texas, but this does not detract from her compelling story.  Told in alternate chapters between her ordeal, one that she often turns into a chance for reflection and prayer, and Lewis’s story, though not as compelling as Cloris’s, this debut author hits all the right notes.

Hill Women by Cassie Chambers
Growing up in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the state, in the Appalachian Mountains, strong women were a part of Cassie’s life: her Granny raised seven children, kept the farm running smoothly, and never let a neighbor go for want even if it meant doing without.  Her aunt Ruth was the strongest tobacco farmer, not married until her forties, and seemingly content to stay on the farm.  Cassie’s mother Wilma was the first of her seven brothers and sisters to graduate high school; leaving home to go to college an hour away, Wilma married and became pregnant at nineteen, but never gave up her dream of finishing college.  Living between her parents’ house and her Granny’s farm, Cassie ended up with the best of both worlds: self-reliance, hard-working, and creative thinking to get what she needed, and when she had the chance to go to New Mexico for school, she didn’t hesitate, a choice which led her to Yale, and then to Harvard Law School.  After graduating and travelling the world, the one place Cassie wanted to be was back home with the women who helped raise her; she knew there was still abject poverty in eastern Kentucky and decided to help rural Kentucky women as they faced domestic abuse, violence, and the opioid crisis.  Cassie tried to work within the system, finding ways around it, looking for other people to help, and has become a member of the Democratic National Committee, and a strong, tireless advocate for the women of her home state, giving them the tools to make their own choices, even if it is to stay where they are rooted in tradition, but with a safer, healthier way of life for them and their families.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
A twelve-year-old boy is the sole survivor when the plane that is carrying his mother, father, and brother to their new home in California, crashes.  While Edward has many physical injuries he needs to heal from, he is also grieving his family, trying to adjust to living with his uncle and aunt, who is also grieving from the death of her sister; he is also one of the most famous people in the United States right now, and has not only strangers reaching out to him, thinking he is charmed, but the families of the other people who were killed in the crash, who spent their last minutes on earth with Edward.  Uncertain how to live his life now, Edward seeks solace where he can, and finds it in unexpected places, in this story that takes a young man from anonymity to fame, from grief to happiness, finding love where he least expects it.  A good recommendation for book groups.

How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleischmann
It is 1941 and has been twenty years since Elisabeth saw her 10-year-old sister Jacqueline disappeared from their Lititz, Pennsylvania home.  Now Elisabeth is living in Alaska with her home-schooled daughter and her all-but-estranged husband who does work with native Alaskans and Native Americans and is often away from home.  When a stranger, Alfred, arrives in their midst, he commits an act of violence that sets off a chain of events that will change Elisabeth’s life forever: Alfred tells Elisabeth if she will fulfill three of his requests he will reveal what happened to her sister, and perhaps where she is now, for Elisabeth is certain she would know if Jacqueline was no longer alive.  Elisabeth is desperate to find her sister, but at what cost to herself, and to her young daughter.  The barren, frozen setting is a perfect backdrop for this unnerving debut that will leave readers wondering, just how far would they go for their family and the lines that they would cross for their own peace of mind.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore
The Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia has been devastated by the opioid crisis, people dying, what seems to be daily.  Mickey is a police officer assigned to this sector and keeps her eye out for her sister Kacey, an addict living on the streets.  Kacey vanishes as a rash of young women are being found murdered and Mickey is afraid the next face she sees will be her sisters and begins to search for Kacey in earnest, and the murderer, against the orders of her sergeant.  Playing close to the edge, crossing lines, putting her life…and that of her young son’s…in jeopardy, Mickey begins to go rogue in the name of family.  The narrative alternates between present day and the story of the sisters growing up in the care of their grandmother.  Details are slowly revealed about the sisters, their upbringing, and their family, little by little, keeping the tension high and the reader on their guard.  This well-written novel is a heartbreaking story with an edge, and explores the bonds and limits of family and they secrets kept from each other, and how each person views themselves within the family and how others view them.  Complex characters and a detailed plot provide plenty of discussion for book groups.

You Were There Too by Colleen Oakley
Mia Graydon and her surgeon husband Harrison have moved from Philadelphia to the quieter river town of Hope Springs hoping for a new start after three miscarriages, the death of one of Harrison’s young patients, and less than stellar reviews of Mia’s art after her first solo show.  Since the death Noah, Harrison has, almost unbeknownst to Mia, withdrawn from their marriage and has been rethinking children.  Mia finds herself face to face with the man of whom she has been dreaming about since she was in high school; when Mia and Oliver meet, he admits he too has been dreaming about her, but neither knows what this strange, yet strong, connection means.  As Oliver and Mia grow closer, and Mia and Harrison grow apart, she finds herself reassessing her choices and considering her future, while trying to decipher what her dreams mean.  As Mia and Harrison assimilate into their new town, their new found tentative peace suddenly turns tragic and heartbreaking, as Mia finally understands her dreams.  This heartfelt novel is not over sentimental, and takes a fascinating look at dreams and missed chances and what they may mean; book groups will find much to discuss.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald
Twenty-one-year old Zelda was born on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum and has a hard time with some things in life: with others, she is amazing.  She loves Vikings and knows it is important to be a legend and a hero in your life which she does amazingly: whether it is living with her brother Gert who wants the best for Zelda but has his own set of problems, wanting to have sex with her boyfriend, or conquering many of her fears as she tackles a new job at the library.  The novel tackles some difficult subjects (alcoholism, violence, drugs, abuse, and the challenges of Special Needs young adults), the characters some of the most special to come along in a while, making this a stand out debut.  For fans of Ginny Moon, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

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