Monday, August 3, 2020

The First to Lie by Hank Phillippi Ryan: Reading Room Review

Whenever I review a book by Hank Phillippi Ryan, I know I will be dipping deep into the well of superlative language to describe it. It is always a challenge to find words that fully express just how great a read it is. Ryan’s newest standalone book, The First to Lie, may be the one that exceeds my abilities to adequately praise. This book is so well written and tightly plotted, you must wonder what the author can ever do to top it. Of course, those of us who have read Hank Phillippi Ryan for years know that she is well known for setting the bar high and achieving it every time. The many awards that set on her shelf reflect the consistency of her excellence, awards that include five Agatha Awards, three Anthony Awards, the Daphne Award, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Then, there are the 37 EMMYs for her television investigative reporting. With this remarkable talent in writing and investigative reporting, Hank Phillippi Ryan was born to write The First to Lie

There are certain favorite elements I love about my crime/mystery novel reading: a compelling story, a layered storyline, intriguing characters (with secrets), suspense that keeps me squirming in my seat, and twists I don’t see coming. The First to Lie is, as they say, all that. In addition, something that greatly appeals to me in all of Ryan’s books, and certainly in this one, is her clever weaving of the title into the story on more than one level. Who is the first to lie? What constitutes a lie? What are the unforeseen consequences of a lie? And, who is lying and who is telling the truth. You won’t know until the very end who are the liars and, indeed, if anyone is telling the whole truth. The truth is a slippery commodity in this story, but then the reader might have to decide if lies are acceptable to achieve a greater good. Ryan always gives us food for thought in her spellbinding stories, reaching beyond the pages of the book into our real lives. 

With some of her best characters to date, Hank Phillippi Ryan unfolds the contemporary version of the epic tale David and Goliath. The giant in The First to Lie takes the form of the Pharminex Company, a major player in the pill pushing industry. The characters created by Ryan to combat the evils of this company’s use of a specific drug are exquisitely complex and often duplicitous. But, then you go back to that question that the author sows throughout, using somewhat devious means to achieve a good end. I’m only going to discuss the three main characters, as I don’t want to give too much away, but readers already know that it takes a village to make a great story work, and this author is a master at minor characters as well as major ones. 

Ellie Berensen is an investigative reporter who has just signed on with a new Boston news television station. She has three weeks before they hit the air, and Ellie is working on a story that will create shockwaves in the pharmaceutical world. She intends to bring down Pharminex, a company who claims it has the health and care of women at its heart. Ellie knows that one of the drugs being pushed hard by the company for infertility can have irreversible ill effects for women, and that Pharminex is hiding that knowledge from patients until it's too late. Meg Weest comes on board as just an assistant for Ellie, but Meg quickly inserts herself directly into the investigative research and Ellie’s personal life. While Ellie is trying to adhere to an ethical investigation, Meg seems willing to resort to subterfuge without any qualms. Nora Quinn is a new pharmaceutical sales representative for Pharminex and has her own agenda for working at the company. She suspects that the drug being pushed off-label as a miracle to treat infertility can leave some women barren without their knowledge of the danger. In her visits to doctors’ offices as a sales rep, Nora feels like she’s in the perfect position to find women who have suffered the devastating result from Monifan and who are willing to talk to her. But, Nora finds out that big pharma has long reaching arms to prevent security breeches, and Ellie discovers that even the women harmed are reluctant to speak out. When a patient dies, the stakes rise alarmingly.

The story is told mainly from the perspectives of Ellie and Nora, but in typical broad, inclusive strokes for Ryan, readers also gain insight into the family behind Pharminex through the “Before” chapters. These “Before” chapters from the past feature Brooke, the Vanderwald daughter, and Lacy, the Vanderwald daughter-in-law. Running through all the chapters are deceit, betrayal, and hidden agendas. The characters are seeking justice, but at least one is seeking revenge, too. Whose lies will take them to the finish line first. The chapter structure enhances the suspense, moving from character to character, creating a pace that suggests urgency. The absolutely brilliant aspect to the chapters for me is the many cliffhangers that left me breathless when the next chapter switched to another character and sometimes another time setting. If I didn’t know what a genuinely lovely person Hank Ryan is, I would call these chapter cliff hangers a sadistic author style, but while you're waiting for the cliff hanger to be resolved, you're reading more riveting story. 

The First to Lie is a dream come true for crime/mystery fans.  It's a page turner that keeps the reader guessing until the end, with all the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  Don't plan anything else once you start reading this book because this story is the very definition of riveting.  Hank Phillippi Ryan should make some room on her shelf for the awards that are sure to be bestowed on her for this thrilling new book. 

I received an advance copy of this book from the author/publisher, and I will verify that the opinions expressed in my review are all my own.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Rules for Being Dead by Kim Powers: Reading Room Review

In reading, there are some titles that catch your eye, and then there are some titles that cause your head to spin around and grab the book. Rules for Being Dead by Kim Powers is just an exceptional title, and the story within lives up to the excellence of the title. There’s also the cover of this book that had me waxing nostalgic, with the black and white picture of a drive-in in probably the 1960s, the setting of the story. There’s an old black and white movie quality to the photograph and an orange sky, with a streak of what looks like either a streak in an old film reel or the last streaks of daylight, which is when the drive-in movies were gearing up to start. For me, it brought up a metaphor of riding off into the sunset, which is basically what the drive-in movies have done, along with the 60’s and all of its glorious movies and changes. For a reader who grew up in the 60’s the pull of all these elements is irresistible, and for those without the nostalgic connection, the book has lots of other pull. Who doesn’t wonder about the afterlife, or if there even is one? Can you still see your loved ones you left behind? Can they see you, hear you, feel you? And, how do young children, who already must handle the challenges of growing up, survive the loss of a parent? How does the other parent provide for the emotional needs of children in this situation, especially when that parent isn’t a great role model and struggling himself? What if the trust is so damaged between the children and the living parent that there may be no way back? Families all have their own dynamics, even when dysfunctional, and when that includes a dead, hovering ghost of a mother, it can get interesting, and in Rules for Being Dead, it does indeed. 

Ten-year-old Clarke Perkins of McKinney, Texas is a big movie fan, and has enjoyed going to the downtown theater with his seven-year-old brother Corey and their mother Creola. Watching the first-run of the 1960s greats, such as My Fair Lady, 007, and Alfie give Clarke a view of the best and worst of adulthood, but he loves the adventure of them and loves sharing it with his mother. However, his mother is found dead in her bed, and Clarke suddenly must figure out life for himself and his little brother. His father is ill-equipped to deal with a child whose knowledge far extends its understanding, and father Frank has a drinking problem threatening to destroy what’s left of his family and himself. Added to the fray is the unknown surrounding Creola’s death for her sons. No one seems interested in telling them how their mother died, so Clarke decides it is up to him to uncover the secrets and person responsible. As he gathers his evidence against the person whom he deems guilty, it is often fueled by the imagination of a young boy with a rich history of big-screen storytelling. 

Hovering over all the live drama is Creola, dead as a doornail, but caught in an In-between where she can see and hear everything going on with those living from her vantage points of the tree across the street, the rooftops, and the school where she taught. But they can’t see or hear Creola, so she is as adrift as Clarke in trying to gain some answers, such as how she died. She must piece together fuzzy memories of her last days and death, too. She is cognizant of the unhappiness of her marriage, and as she lingers betwixt and between, more of her husband’s unsavory behavior comes back to her, along with memories of some strange behavior from herself. 

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, with the majority being in alternating chapters of Clarke and his mother. Clarke continues to attend the movies with Corey and carry out his investigation into his mother’s death, while he is dealing with his own growing pains. Creola takes readers through her life, her marriage, and her mothering to discover how she ended up dead. Frank, too, has interjecting chapters in which the reader is given a look at this seemingly irredeemable father who causes so much heartache. Two supporting characters are also given a voice, helping to fill in the gaps of the narrative, and readers will find their stories compelling in themselves as well as adding to that of Creola’s and her family’s. Maurice is the school janitor at the elementary school where Creola taught, and he had been joining her and the boys in the movie theater to watch the films for which they all had a passion. He’s also a gay man living in a small Texas town in the 1960s, which expands the scope of the story and the meaning of family. Betty is Frank’s mistress, who isn’t someone you’d expect to be a mistress, which in turn broadens the reader’s view of what kind of woman would be involved in an extra-marital affair and why. Both Maurice and Betty are sources for important information and insight. 

Kim Powers is a master at character creation and development. While showing the strengths and the flaws of all the characters, he is encouraging readers to take a deeper look at not only the characters, but at the people around them and themselves. What is forgivable in a person? What motivates them, scares them, and gives them hope? Rules for Being Dead is that dark sort of comedy and mystery that while making fun of one of our darkest fears, the afterlife, gives us the incentive to look at the life lived now. 

Rules for Being Dead is easily going to be a favorite book this year for many readers. It's certainly earned a place on my Favorites List and a book I will heartily recommend. Kim Powers brings his diverse writing skills to a story that has a voice like few others. In fact, I'm going to recommend something I don't think I ever have before for a book, and something I intend to follow through on myself. I think readers would thoroughly enjoy reading Rules for Being Dead first and then, when it comes out in audio, listening to it. Again, there is such amazing voice in the story that it should be lingered over thusly. 

For full disclosure purposes, I received an advanced reader's copy of Rules for Being Dead, and my review reflects my honest reaction and opinion.

Kim Powers can be found at:

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Summer Stunners: End of July and First of August Reading

There are so many amazing books that have come out the end of July and are coming out the beginning of August, I decided that I had to put a post up on the blog here about them.  I was going to just include two weeks, but I fudged a little, picking up a few titles before and after the last week and first week of those months.  So, find your favorite reading spot and surround yourself with the abundance of riches in the below list.  I've also included some covers to tempt readers even more and a group picture from Kensington of titles they released yesterday.  I attended an online launch party for the Kensington titles last night, and it was a blast.  The online author events are so much fun, and readers can learn so much about both their favorite authors and new authors.  During this time of limited social outings and canceled travel plans, we can still count on amazing authors to provide we readers with toppling to-be-read piles and hours of enjoyment.  So, here are some books to consider.

End of July

The Daughters of Foxcote Manor by Eve Chase (July 21st) 
Paris is Always a Good Idea by Jenn McKinlay (July 21st)
Exit Strategy (NYPD Negotiators, Book #1) by Jen Danna (July 28th 
The End of Her: A Novel by Shari Lapena (July 28th) 
The Wild Card (Queen of Spades #6) by Kristi Belcamino (July 28th 
Afterland by Lauren Beukes (July 28th) 
The Fate of a Flapper: A Mystery (The Speakeasy Murders #2) by Susanna Calkins (July 28th)   
Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession edited by Sarah Weinman (July 28th 
Tea & Treachery (Teas by the Sea, #1) by Vicki Delany (July 28th 
He Started It by Samantha Downing (July 28th)
From Beer to Eternity (new series) by Sherry Harris (July 28th)    
A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder (A Countess of Harleigh Mystery #3) by Dianne
Freeman (July 28th) 
When She Was Good (Cyrus Haven #2) by Michael Robotham (July 28th

First of August

Scot on the Rocks (Lexie Campbell, Last Ditch Mysteries #3) by Catriona McPherson (Aug. 3rd in Kindle format) 
The First to Lie by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Aug. 4th)
The Wicked Sister by Karen Dionne (Aug. 4th) 
The Last Mrs. Summers (A Royal Spyness Mystery) by Rhys Bowen (Aug. 4th) 
Rules for Being Dead by Kim Powers (Aug. 4th) 
Key Lime Crime (A Key West Food Critic Mystery #10) by Lucy Burdette (Aug. 11th) 
We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin (Aug. 11th) 
Booked for Death (A Booklover’s B&B Mystery, #1) by Victoria Gilbert (Aug. 11th)