Thursday, December 31, 2020

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey: Reading Room Review


When I taught high school, particularly working with writing portfolios, I would occasionally come across a student's writing that spoke from the unimaginable situations they dealt with in their young adult lives, family and living situations that made me wonder how these students were able to function in any sense of normal at school, let alone do schoolwork and keep up. As Jess Lourey's book Unspeakable Things sets forth, there are those young people living so far outside "normal" that they must develop a defense system to survive it. If this book doesn't startle your awareness and break your heart, you need a checkup to make sure you have a heart. The time setting of this story is the 1980s, as it is based on true events that happened during the 80s in the Minnesota community of the author Jess Lourey, but it could have easily taken place today.

Cassie McDowell is a twelve-year-old girl struggling with an unconventional family life in which her unemployed sculptor father rules the family with his too often dark and unpredictable moods. On the outside, Cassie's presents a financially strapped existence, but a respectable one. Although her father doesn't bring in much money with his art, he is well-educated, and Cassie's mother is a high school English teacher, also highly educated. I pretty much spent the whole book despising both Cassie's parents. It would seem enviable to live on a farm with acres of wild to explore and fresh air to breathe in, but Cassie's parents use their distance from town and neighbors to an adult advantage, exposing Cassie and her older sister Sephie to adult situations way beyond their years. It's also easier for other people to pretend that the McDowell parents are just a bit free spirited, rather than unfit parents.

But, Cassie begins to have worries outside her home, beyond her fear of sleeping in her own bed. Boys her age, some younger and some older, are being taken. They are returned, but the boys are not the same as before. Something dark has crept into their lives and settled there. School is just letting out for the summer, and after the second boy is abducted, a curfew of 9 p.m. is set for the small town of Lilydale. Childhood is being interrupted by the sound of a siren every night, reminding everyone that boys are still being snatched. Some semblance of normalcy is sought, with birthday parties and swimming in the creek, and Cassie daydreams about the nice boy in her class who has actually spoken to her. But, when a boy is taken and not returned, the community of Lilydale must face the darkness of its own prejudices as it points fingers in predictable directions. 

This book is a dark tale indeed, but the character of Cassie McDowell makes enduring that darkness bearable and rewarding. Cassie is an unforgettable hero who has the courage and perseverance that those around her, especially her parents, lack. She sees more clearly than others, partly because she is in the realm of those boys being abducted and partly because she hasn't yet taken on the blinders of adulthood. Her world has sharp corners, but she finds some comfort in her own inventions, like kitty clinic and the sheet game and writing stories from what she reads. She is a survivor, and I am the richer for having read her story. 

Jess Lourey is an author who writes from the soul. Readers will feel the characters full force, embracing some and detesting others, but you will feel them. There is a preciseness in Lourey's description that seems to hit on just the right words, never superfluous, but always complete. The dialogue is a moving, flowing part of the narrative that shapes the characters into their parts and often is chillingly revealing. 

It's interesting, to me at least, that Unspeakable Things was the first book I bought this year, but it was the last book I read this year. I can be obtusely wrong sometimes. I have a category in my Goodreads book listings that is entitled "why haven't I read this book yet." Well, I can't think of a book that better fits that category than Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey. I highly recommend that readers who have somehow missed reading this book thus far make it a priority to read it soon. You will be glad you did.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Leave No Trace by Sara Driscoll: Reading Room Review




The fifth book in the FBI K-9 series, Leave No Trace, by Sara Driscoll is so much in so many ways. It's hard to decide which aspect of the book to praise first. The story is an original, thrilling adventure through the outdoors fraught with river rapids, challenging forest and hill climbing, wild animals, and survival skills. One of the shining qualities I love about this series are the original story ideas, the situations that the FBI’s Human Scent Evidence Team, dogs and their trainers, encounter, and the skills they must hone to overcome killers who put them in dangerous spots. And, within these original stories are historical insights and learning that are such integral parts of the story, never just information, it is the backstory that is the backbone of current circumstances. The characters, both regulars and new draw the reader into their lives and create an investment from the reader. When an author creates characters who evoke emotions and understanding from the reader, well, the great idea of the story comes to life full force. While the FBI dog handlers and others are the characters who create the action, it is the dogs in this series that grab your heart and don’t let go. Setting is another area in which Driscoll excels, as the demanding surroundings with which the team must contend are so aptly described, it's easy to imagine oneself struggling with thick forest and churning rivers. Meg’s fear of heights aptly registered with me and had me gasping more than once. 

In Leave No Trace, handlers Meg Jennings and Brian Foster, with their dogs Hawk and Lacy, are called from Washington, D.C. to small town Blue Ridge in Georgia, where an expert bow hunter has killed multiple times, a single deadly arrow piercing each victim precisely on target. Special agent Sam Cruze, in charge of the investigation, welcomes the resources of the tracking dogs. Unfortunately, this killer seems to be particularly wily about covering tracks. As the victims are in some way associated with a new dam proposal for the area, the suspect list includes a large number of people who stand to lose their land and livelihoods to the construction of the dam. Also of interest are the Cherokee Indians in neighboring North Carolina who are trying to reclaim this land that was stolen from them in the early 1800s. Add to the suspect profile that bow hunting in the area is a competitive sport, and there are many who fit that descriptor. With connection to the three states of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, narrowing down the suspect list is a daunting task. The shooter is, however, in an elite status of perfection shooting from difficult terrain and hitting the mark, so that factor can eliminate many. 

One of the aces in the hole that the FBI K-9 unit has is Clay McCord, a Washington Post reporter who is an outstanding researcher and has worked with the team before, with the promise of an exclusive on the story afterward. McCord also happens to date Meg's sister, Cara. So, when McCord arrives on site, he immediately goes into his whirling dervish mode to gather needed research on the bow hunters who have a stake in dissuading the building of a new dam. 

Before a solid suspect will be identified and apprehended, the action is intense. Readers say that a book is page-turning exciting, but Leave No Trace is as compelling a read as I have encountered. Meg and Brian and Hawk and Lacy must be at their most fit, physically and mentally, ever to overcome the obstacles of the Appalachian wilderness, man-made flumes, unfriendly wildlife, and a unerring killer. My heart was in my throat more than once while reading about characters and animals I've come to care about being in great peril. Pacing is yet another element that the author accomplishes effectively. 

Not apart from creating a great story, characters, setting, and pace are two features of this book and this series that make it such a favorite of mine. At the heart of the series is the relationship and interactions between the handlers/trainers and their dogs. In particular, Meg and her black Labrador Hawk are in a symbiotic relationship of mutualism, both working as one and benefiting the other. Of course, it's the affection they show one another when not on point that warms my heart. With so many dogs being in the book, the FBI dogs, Cara's dogs, and McCord's dog, it's a most satisfying place for we dog lovers. But, it is representative of loving partnerships with all of our furry family members. 

The other feature of the series is what I learn from the stories. There's nothing didactic about these books, but there are always issues, more than one, which benefit the readers as they navigate their lives and worlds. In Leave No Trace, the land that the new dam will cover with water is land which was stripped from Native Americans two hundred years ago, with no reparation, and much heartache. The infamous Trail of Tears is part of this history. With the Cherokee having filed claim to the land, the history of it flows throughout the book in a natural inclusion. The epigraphs at the beginnings of each chapter contain quotes or information relating to the topic of the stolen land and the demise of those forced from it. Not all the epigraphs are Native American related. Some explain facts or aspects of dams, which figure so importantly in the book. None of this information gained through the epigraphs is overwhelming or moralizing. For me, it helps with the understanding of the characters and their actions. 

This series has been a favorite for me since its beginning. Each has its own story that is completed in the book. There are growing relationships with the characters, their personal dramas, but it is possible to pick up one of the five books and read alone, too. Leave No Trace especially lends itself to a stand-alone read. Of course, I would encourage readers to enjoy all five, but the starting point is up to you. As with most loved series, waiting for the next book is hard, but the good news is that #6, Under Pressure, has just been finished and will be out a year from now. 

I was given the opportunity by author Sara Driscoll and Net Galley to read Leave No Trace before publication, and I assure all that my remarks are all my own opinion.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard: Reading Room Review


This book should come with a warning: do not read while alone in your house. I love thrillers, but I’m rarely scared by them. The Nothing Man permeated my layer of fiction security and had me looking over my shoulder throughout its reading. It is a book that will shatter your sense of safety and have you sleeping with one eye open. Psychological thriller at its best. Catherine Ryan Howard has achieved a level of intensity usually reserved for the movies, where you can see the danger coming. Howard creates a picture out of her words that is more powerful than a screen image, because what you imagine is even terrifying in its possibilities. It is the story of a serial killer who attacks people in their homes, and the police (Gardai) have nothing left, no evidence, at the scenes to connect to a suspect. The Nothing Man leaves nothing incriminating behind. He appears out of the dark and slithers back into it after brutalizing his victims. 

Eve Black was twelve years old when the Nothing Man paid her family a visit in the middle of an October night in 2001. She was the lone survivor in the murdering rampage that killed her mother, her father, and her seven-year-old sister. With this tragedy being the defining moment of her life, Eve’s path just naturally takes her to writing a book about the Nothing Man. Say it’s a calling or an obsession or a need to understand, Eve knows that she can’t move on to anything else until she finds the man who so altered the lives of her family and others. After Eve’s family was killed, the Nothing Man went dormant, his terrorizing apparently abated or thrown off course by a stronger pull in his life. But, Eve at 30 isn’t satisfied that he doesn’t seem to be a threat anymore. She wants him identified and punished. 

A security guard at a large supermarket is shocked when he sees a book by Eve Black called The Nothing Man in a customer’s hands. Jim Doyle is all too familiar with the name he was given as he baffled the police in his evidence-free sprees of violence. Almost twenty years have passed, and he felt confident that his dark secret would never see the light of day. But, he’s curious what Eve Black, the girl he left alive in the home at Passage West in County Cork, Ireland has to say, if she gets it right about him and just how much she knows. He buys a copy of the book and starts reading about his interactions with his victims, reliving the moments when he held the fate of a person or couple or family in his hands. And, he realizes that Eve Black poses a real threat to his anonymity and a danger to his discovery. 

Catherine Ryan Howard gives readers this chilling story in a clever format. It’s a book within a book, with the chapters of Eve Black’s memoir and true crime book interrupted by the thoughts of the Nothing Man as he reads it and fills in some of the blanks not covered in Eve’s book. It’s a seamless transition from one to the other, with the commentary from Jim Doyle becoming an anticipated part of the story. Not only is Eve’s story told in her book, but the stories of the other victims are there, too, in all their catastrophic horror. Howard/Eve gives the background of these other attacks, presenting a well-fleshed out picture of the victims through what Eve presents and Jim adds. It’s the human, personal effects we get from Eve and the cold, unfeeling actions of sociopath from Jim. Catherine Ryan Howard does a brilliant job of giving enough information and description without any gratuitous detail of the violence. She shows great patience as a writer, not rushing the action or conclusions, a natural pace setter. There are plenty of surprises throughout the book, ones that will chill and ones that will make you play the if only game in your head. It is an un-put-downable read of intensity. The originality of this book and its palatable scare factor will make it a must-read for crime fiction fans everywhere. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier: Reading Room Review

Impact.  That’s the word I would choose if I had to choose but one word to describe a Jennifer Hillier novel.  I just finished reading her latest book, Little Secrets, and once again I felt the impact.  It’s a realization that the world in which you think and live is smaller than you think, and here is a way you probably haven’t looked at things before.  A famous quote that covers Hillier’s writing is when Hamlet says to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  It’s good to have your horizons broadened and challenged, and reading is always a great way to do that.  But, some reading has that impact of challenging you and changing your perceptions with a gasp of realization.  Little Secrets digs deep inside the human psyche of its characters, which, in turn, causes the reader to dig deep into their own.

Marin Machado has it all.  Wealth, her own business of three high-end beauty salons, a successful and handsome husband, good friends, and a beautiful four-year-old son named Sebastian.  She isn’t impressed with her advantages or with her own good looks and style. She is generous and caring, a good person, someone who has worked hard to be where she is.  She and her husband Derek have the respect and admiration of their community in Seattle.  Then, the unthinkable happens to shatter their world.  Three days before Christmas, Marin and Sebastian are at the crowded local mall as she tries to finish up on the last gift she needs to buy while dealing with a tired little boy who just wants to go to the candy store.  Fielding a phone call from her best friend Sal and then a text from her husband, Marin lets go of Sebastian’s hand for just a few seconds.  And, he vanishes.  Cameras later reveal Sebastian exiting the mall toward the parking garage with someone dressed like Santa.  The trail ends there, and after a month of no new leads, the FBI takes the case off its priority list.

Fifteen months since the worst day of her life, Marin has finally returned to work part-time, but it’s a flexible schedule due to her reliable, capable manager Stacy.  Still unable to sleep without pills and trying to just get through the day, Marin is a shell of the vibrant woman she was before Sebastian was taken.  She does go to therapy, although she’s not a fan of it.  Her support group for parents with missing children, with only a few other members, is more helpful to her than anything else.  Derek doesn’t attend the support group.  In fact, she and Derek barely speak, each living their own diminished lives in the wake of their tragedy.  She speaks more to her friend Sal, who checks on her every day, than she does Derek.

Marin does maintain some flickering hope that she will discover what has happened to her son.  When the FBI had to move on from Sebastian’s case, Marin hired a private investigator, Vanessa Castro, an ex-police officer who has dogged determination in her work.  Marin has not confided in Derek that she hired Castro.  Little secret, but understandable, right?  While working Sebastian’s case, Castro uncovers that Derek is having an affair with a twenty-four year old barista named Kenzie Li, and has been for six months.  Bigger secret.  When Marin receives this news, she is furious, and her anger starts to guide her decisions and actions.  She knows, but Derek doesn’t know she knows.  More and more secrets, and ones you never see coming.  Marin is determined to not lose any more than she has already.  Now, the reader gets a close look at not only the thought processes of grief, but of revenge.

The story is told from the perspectives of the two women, Marin and Kenzie, with Marin having more stage time.  While readers will be fascinated by the psychology of Marin’s despair, it’s also intriguing to look inside the mind of Kenzie and see where she’s coming from, her survival mindset.  And, if you think those are the only two minds and actions examined, you’ll be astounded by more.  It‘s a psychological thriller at its best and most complete.  Marin is always the main character, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither does the story.

When I read Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts last year, I said a most satisfactory “Wow” after I finished it.  Seldom had I been as challenged to see an event from the mind of a participant in a crime and understand it.  Now, I’ve finished Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets, and I find my understanding once again stretched. And, it’s not just with the major characters. This author brilliantly lets the light shine in the tiny cracks as well as the wide, gaping holes. You will feel like you’ve examined yourself, in a good way, from reading Hillier’s writing.  It’s quite possible you will be a more empathetic person.  I am, of course, highly recommending Little Secrets to others.  Readers don’t want to miss this powerful story.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Key Lime Crime by Lucy Burdette: Reading Room Review

For readers, when people talk about a staycation, a vacation where you take off from work and responsibilities and stay home relaxing instead of traveling to a vacation spot (something so many of us have had to do in 2020), it is a chance to kick back and read to your heart’s contentment. What if you could have a staycation but feel like you’ve traveled to one of the best vacation spots there is? Well, reading Lucy Burdette’s latest Key West Food Critic book, The Key Lime Crime, is a sweet walk down the streets and sights and foods of Key West, Florida. I can feel the rhythm of the island throughout every page of this book and all the others in this enchanting series. Key West time will draw you into the story and keep you swaying to the beat as Lucy Burdette brilliantly mixes murder into Paradise. Of course, Hayley Snow always lands right in the middle of it, along with her amazing octogenarian friend Miss Gloria. Now being married to Nathan Bransford, Hayley has the added challenge of flying under her husband’s radar to investigate a case which seems to be connected to her personally. 

Hayley and Nathan are still staying with Miss Gloria on her houseboat as they wait for their adjacent boat to be remodeled. With Nathan’s dog and Hayley’s cat and Miss Gloria’s cat, it’s a full house. When Nathan’s mother sends word she’s coming for a visit, there’s not a bed to be had on the houseboat or at any guest housing in Key West. Hayley’s mother and her stepfather come to the rescue and offer to put Mrs. Bransford up at their condo. Nathan’s mother was a no-show at the wedding, so Hayley is nervous about meeting her mother-in-law for the first time, and Hayley only has a day‘s notice. To add to the pressure, it’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and Key West is hopping at its busiest. Hayley has articles due for Key Zest, the online zine where she is food critic, and part of what she’s working on involves a contest for the best Key Lime pie in Key West. Nathan is overseeing security on the island for the week, a week that sees an influx of thousands of visitors, so his time with his mother or anyone else will be limited. And, Hayley’s mother and step-father have events employing their catering business all week. This holiday week is Key West on steroids. 

Nathan has bought tickets for his mother, Hayley, and Miss Gloria to take a ride on the Conch Train tour of holiday lights, and Mrs. Bransford/Helen no sooner arrives than it’s time to hurry over to the tourist train and claim the last three seats. Hayley is certain that this form of entertainment isn’t to Helen’s liking, but Hayley doesn’t think Helen will much like anything on the island, as rigidity seems to be her mother-in-law’s style. To make matters worse, Helen doesn’t enjoy eating, and with Hayley being a foodie, it’s another barrier to a close relationship. But, things heat up after the Conch Train ride, when Miss Gloria wants to drive back over to the last holiday location the train passed. As they approach the house on foot, the blown-up drunken Santa looks a little off, and it doesn‘t take long before the women realize it‘s a dead body. After the police arrive, including Nathan, and bystanders gather, the corpse is identified as Claudette Parker, the bakery chef at the new bakery, Au Citron Vert. Hayley had just seen Claudette the day before at the opening ceremony for the Key Lime Pie competition. Claudette was smearing another contestant’s pie into the face of David Sloan, Key Lime Pie expert and contest director, for disqualifying Claudette’s Key Lime Parfait because it didn’t fit the definition of a pie. And, now here Claudette lay dead. However, David Sloan isn’t the only one who had hard feelings toward the new bakery chef, especially one who had bragged that her Key Lime Parfait would make Key Lime Pie passé in its home base of Key West. It can be dangerous to attack an institution , and that pie had many people invested in its continued success. 

As with any body Hayley finds, and she’s found a few, Hayley becomes entangled in unraveling the who and the why of the murder. She does try to respect her husband’s admonitions to steer clear of the investigation, but a completely unexpected source of encouragement to prod and pry comes her way, Hayley’s mother-in-law Helen. Nathan’s mother is relentless in pushing Hayley to dig deeper and deeper, and Helen even insists on being right there with Hayley for the action. There are layers and twists to this murder that take the characters and readers from one suspect to another. It’s a dangerous undertaking for Hayley, and she worries that those she loves may become collateral damage. 

Lucy Burdette always has a great blend of fascinating characters, charming setting, and Key West flavored stories, and you can’t get any more Key West flavored than a mystery with Key Lime Pie at its center. What makes this series so appealing to me is its authenticity. The characters are a mixture of make-believe and real. Of course, the created characters seem real to us as we follow them from book to book.  Who hasn't fallen in love with Miss Gloria and delighted in her presence?  The setting is taken from the author’s own experience there. Cuban Coffee Queen, Key Lime Pie Factory, Duvall Street, Green Parrot Bar, and so many more unique and wonderfully quirky places come alive under this author’s imaging. For those of us who have visited this southern most point of the United States, it is a trip down a beautiful memory lane as we read the thrilling tales taking place there. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to take in this one of a kind atmosphere, Lucy Burdette’s Key West Food Critic series makes you feel as if you have. The Key Lime Crime is #10 in the series, and it’s an absolute treat.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Last Mrs. Summers by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review

Before I started reading The Last Mrs. Summers, I had heard the author Rhys Bowen talk about being inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for its creation. Knowing going into this book that there would be shades of one of my all-time favorite books in its storyline was Pavlov ringing the bell. And, knowing that one of my favorite contemporary authors had created this new story was a guarantee that I had a memorable reading experience in store for me. But, could that all-consuming atmosphere that permeated every page of Rebecca and every pore of your skin be recreated? The answer is a resounding yes. Rhys Bowen did a brilliant job of ensuring that the crucial element of atmosphere never lagged. So many of my favorite trope boxes were checked in The Last Mrs. Summers. English countryside, large estate, cottage, romantic attraction of seemingly opposites, a scary housekeeper, a laid-out breakfast (yes, that’s important), sea cliffs, the sea, secret caves, and the delicious revenge served up cold. Well, to say I was in my reader’s paradise would come close to capturing the sustainable thrill I enjoyed throughout every page. 

It is fall 1935 and Lady Georgiana, now Mrs./Lady Georgiana O'Mara, is back from her Kenya honeymoon with Darcy and ensconced in their home sweet home of Eynsleigh, a generous gift from Georgie’s former step-father. The biggest problem Georgie has is wondering who she is going to hire as a cook to replace Queenie, who is a deft hand at baking, but not so much main meal fare. Georgie and Darcy have barely unpacked their suitcases when Darcy gets called up on one of his mysterious missions for the Crown, with Georgie not knowing where he's off to. Left by herself with a few staff, including the ever-exasperating Queenie, Georgie goes searching for company in London, first to her friend Zou Zou and then to Georgie’s grandfather. Neither of those work out, and she thinks her best friend Belinda is still in France, so it’s back to Eynsleigh for Georgie. To Georgie’s delight, she finds Belinda there wanting a travel companion. 

Belinda, who has had financial uncertainty in common with Georgie in the past, is now a rich woman due to the settlement of her grandmother’s estate, and one of the less impressive inherited properties include a cottage in Cornwall. Belinda is off to check out the cottage, and, with little urging, Georgie agrees to join her on the trip. After a wild ride in Belinda’s new sports car, the friends arrive after dark at the seaside cottage called White Sails. Its state of disrepair is anything but inviting, but being a remote area, Georgie and Belinda must spend the night in its chilly structure. After a night of discomfort and a surprise visitor, the friends decide they must find another place to reside while assessing the cottage’s needed repairs. Belinda, who used to spend summers with her grandmother in a lovely large house in the area, knows that it won’t be easy to find a place. But, as has often happened with Georgie and Belinda, a chance encounter, this time with an old childhood acquaintance of Belinda’s, produces an invitation from the acquaintance, Rose, to stay with her and her husband at their grand home called Trewoma. Although Belinda has some good reasons to refuse the offer, the overriding need for shelter yields to acceptance. 

And, so we come to Manderly, I mean Trewoma, where it is one delightful trope after another that mirrors the novel Rebecca. Rich widowed man (Tony Summers) marries mousey woman (Rose) who is undermined by the creepy housekeeper, who seems to appear out of thin air at times. The death of the man’s first wife haunts the home and is a constant reminder to Rose, the second wife, just how much she falls short of her role as mistress of the house. Georgie is already having uneasy feelings about the inhabitants of Trewoma when one of the household is found murdered. To extricate Belinda and herself from a murder investigation, Georgie will have to dig deep and determine what part the past has played in the present circumstances. Lots of surprises and twists ensue. 

What a gift this book was to this reader, who was swept away into the perfect reading adventure. One of my favorite books in one of my favorite series! I adored the similarities to Rebecca, but there is no mistaking that this is a Royal Spyness book. Lady Georgie is clearly at the helm of the action and proving her mettle quite impressively. Georgie has come a long way from the directionless, wandering Royal extra she began the series as. While she remains our loveable, trouble magnet, Georgie has come into her own as a strong, reliable partner, friend, and descendant of Queen Victoria. Rhys Bowen is a master at creating characters whom readers can’t get enough of and stories in which they persevere, while including a good dose of humor and optimism. Readers of this series have a treat in store for them with The Last Mrs. Summers.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Scot on the Rocks by Catriona McPherson: Reading Room Review

                                                Scot on the Rocks (A Last Ditch mystery Book 3) - Kindle edition ...                     
Catriona McPherson is wily, as well as witty. You may think that the Last Ditch series is funny and a hoot to read, and you would be right. But, it has a depth that exceeds its humor. By this third book in the series, Scot on the Rocks, readers are hooked on the extended family of the Last Ditch Motel, a group of what may at first appear to be misfits, but who are joined at the heart and compliment one another’s quirkiness. Lexy Campbell, the Scottish transplant who lives on a boat in the slough beside the motel is the focus of the action, but her cohorts in chaos are never far behind. Family redefined for the residents of this less than stellar motel is family redefined by all who read the series’ books. See how wily Catriona makes that happen. Impressive. 

In Scot on the Rocks, Lexy and her crew/family become entangled in her ex-husband's case of his missing wife, Brandee, who was the #1 wife and now the #3 wife. Lexy only held the wife #2 position for 7 months. Since Todd, the insectophobiac anesthetist who lives at the motel with his pediatrician husband Roger, and germophobic Kathi, who is married to the motel’s live-in manager Noleen, have inserted themselves into Lexy’s counseling business, they are involved in any business that comes Lexy’s way. So, when Lexy’s ex-husband Bran shows up begging Lexy to help find his missing wife, the three of them start investigating to see if Brandee was kidnapped, or if she took off on her own. Did I mention that Lexy’s counseling business also does investigations, which usually end up putting her at odds with the police, especially a female cop named Mike? 

In concurrence with Brandee’s disappearance is the baffling abduction of one of the town’s beloved statues, Mama Cuento. In an even more wacky turn of events, one of Mama Cuento‘s bronze toes has been broken off and left behind with a sinister note. When Bran shows Lexy and crew a similar kidnapping note he receives with an acrylic nail enclosed, it’s anybody’s guess as to what is going on, what’s connected and what’s not. Of course, as fans of this series know, the entire motel family will become participants in this wild and wooly chase for answers, although being the standing members of Trinity services, it will be Lexy and Todd and Kathi who take the most dangerous risks and find themselves on a road trip to Patriarchyville. There are lots of surprises in this tale of who or what went where and why. Readers will be entertained without pause. 

There is no doubt in any reader’s mind that Catriona McPherson knows how to tell a tale, and in this series, readers also can depend on McPherson to make them laugh. But who says you can’t broaden your horizons while you’re laughing? Scot on the Rocks and the previous two books in this series are invitations to explore, to color outside the lines and think outside the box. The Last Ditch Motel is a living, breathing example of diversity and how much better it makes one’s life. Catriona McPherson has created a magnificent cast of characters to lead us all into a better place.

A note here that Scot on the Rocks is only available on e-book presently. It will be out in print in February or 2021.

Tuesday, August 4, 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 L.E. 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. L.E., 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. Rita is L.E.’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 Rita 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)