Languid like a warm Caribbean beach

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Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star review

7-year-old Claire and her older sister, Alison, are on vacation with their parents on the Caribbean island of Saint X.  On their last evening there, Alison disappears.  Days later, her body is found and the police arrest two local men, Clive and Edwin.  Clive and Edwin are soon released as there is not enough evidence to hold them.  So the family comes home.  Years later when Claire is an adult and living in New York City, she runs into Clive.  Claire becomes obsessed with learning the truth of what happened to Alison and she starts to follow Clive around the city.  She’s sure that someday he’ll make a mistake and the truth will be known.

This is the type of book that, while it tells a very interesting story, it’s not the story itself that makes it special but rather the telling of the story.  The author has a wonderful way of bringing her reader right into the hearts and minds of her characters.  Each of the characters has their own tale to tell and even the characters who only make a brief appearance have their chance to share their views.  There are a lot of layers to this intelligent book and I absolutely loved it.  It’s a slow moving, beauty of a book, languid like a warm Caribbean beach, but keeps lovingly pulling you along.

Keep an eye on this debut author.  She’ll be going far for sure!

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

An unbelievable foray into the mind of a serial killer

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The Only Child by Mi-Ae Seo

Book Review:  3 out of 5 star rating

Yi Byeongdo is a serial killer sitting on death row.  He hasn’t said much to anyone about the murders he’s committed and the police are anxious to learn just how many murders there were.  Unexpectedly, Yi Byeongdo has asked to be interviewed by a criminal psychologist by the name of Seonkyeong.  Seonkyeong has no idea why Yi Byeongdo has singled her out as she does not know him.

Seonkyeong has just been surprised by her husband with the arrival of his eleven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Hayeong.  There has been a fire and Hayeong’s grandparents with whom she was living have died.  Seonkyeong is anxious to help Hayeong feel at home but soon starts to feel out of her depth.  Seonkyeong starts to see quite a few similarities in the histories of both Yi Byeongdo and Hayeong.

I must say that I was disappointed with this one.  I have enjoyed the writing of other Korean authors and apparently Mi-ae Seo is a bestselling thriller author and screenwriter in Korea.  I just could not get into this story and found it to be written in quite a lackluster way.  There were moments when I thought, OK, here we go, but then nothing much happened.  For being a criminal psychologist, Seonkyeong’s thinking and decisions were disconcerting.  She should have known better in so many instances and that leant the book a feeling of unreality.  There were quite a few unbelievable incidents in the book.  While the author did a good job of weaving the separate storylines together, all I could think at the ending of the book was “You have to be kidding”.

Hopefully this book will find an audience that will love it but it’s not one that I can honestly recommend, even though it did have its moments.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

A powerful, mesmerizingly sad book about a pedophile and his victim

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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Vanessa Wye is 15 years old in 2000.  She’s insecure and naïve and oh so young.  She’s an easy target for her teacher, Jacob Strane, who is 42 years old and a pedophile.  While Strane carefully grooms Vanessa towards his ultimate goals, Vanessa is convinced that her actions are consensual and that this is what she wants.

Switch to 2017.  The “Me Too” movement is in full swing.  A former student has accused Strane of abuse.  He’s counting on Vanessa to back him up.  Vanessa assures him that she will since she has always believed that she was the instigator of their affair.  As she reaches back into her memory and reads of the new allegations against Strane, her perceptions and beliefs of the past subtly start to shift.

Wow, just wow.  What a powerful, mesmerizingly sad book this is.  My heart bled for Vanessa as I watched her heart and soul open itself to this abusive man.  She just wanted to feel special, to feel beautiful, to feel loved.  Strane took advantage of that desire and brought such devastation and confusion into Vanessa’s life.  I’ve read reviews saying that this book looks at whether this situation should be considered abuse if it’s consensual, but I truly don’t see how anyone could believe that this was consensual on Vanessa’s part.  Strane wouldn’t stop even as she lay there crying.  She was manipulated into believing this was what she wanted.  Every word that Strane said to her, every look he gave her, every caress he risked was to bring this young girl around to his thinking.  He even used the books he was teaching to convince her of how “special” she was.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

 

Deep, heart wrenching tale

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The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

A young brother and sister, Evered and Ada Best, are only 11 and 12 years old when they are left as orphans when a devastating illness takes their parents and baby sister.  Their dilemma is made worse by the fact that they live in an isolated cove in Newfoundland.  Their contact with and knowledge of the outside world has been minimal.  Their parents were taken ill so quickly that they were unable to prepare their children to survive in this desolate place.  They know that a ship named “The Hope” comes once a year and that their father took his boat out to the ship with his yearly fish catch and returned with supplies.  Now the young boy is in the position of providing for himself and his sister with little knowledge of how to do that.  They soon learn how in debt to the owner of “The Hope” they are.

This is much more than a book about survival.  It’s a deep look at family and loyalty.  I’ve seen comparisons to Charles Dickens’ work and this story.  The imperiled, hungry children, the colorful characters they come into contact with and the brilliant writing make it easy to see why.  This author is a poet and the language he uses is just lovely.  He adds quite a few quaint Newfoundland phrases that I wasn’t familiar with but enjoyed.  It’s truly heart wrenching to read of the ebb and flow of the relationship between this brother and sister over the years and the battles they faced, not only with the world around them but with each other.  I will now be on the lookout for other books from this excellent author.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

 

Spending time with old friends

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The Old Success by Martha Grimes

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

A beautiful French tourist is murdered, her body washed up on the Cornish coast.  Two little girls find her body.  Divisional Commander Brian Macalvie doesn’t know what to make of it.  While he and Inspector Richard Jury start their investigation, two more murders occur.  Macalvie and Jury turn to Tom Brownell.  Brownell is retired now but he’s known for solving every case, but one, that he worked on.  Brownell is convinced that the murders are connected.  Will this be the second case that Brownell doesn’t solve?

There’s nothing better than spending time with old friends.  This is the 25th Richard Jury mystery that Ms. Grimes has written, with the first one having been published in 1981.  I’ve read every one of them, including a couple of her standalones.  The mystery always seems to be almost insignificant as its Grimes’ characters that draw me to her books.  She has written some of the most loved, eccentric and humorous characters I’ve ever read.  I was in stitches in this current book when Melrose Plant brings in a young boy who he tells Aunt Agatha is a blood relation and Aunt Agatha squirms from the thought that she might not inherit everything after all.  I love this author’s wry sense of humor.  I do think that it would be wise to read from the start of this series to get the full benefit of the development of these characters.  A new reader starting with this one may feel a bit lost without the backstory.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

 

More erotica than literary

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The Girl at the Door by Veronica Raimo

Book Review:  2 out of 5 star rating

A nameless 6-months pregnant woman is finding her place in Miden.  Miden is a future society that has grown out of “The Crash”.  The woman lives with her nameless boyfriend, who is a professor.  One day the woman receives a visit from a young girl who claims that she once had a violent relationship with the woman’s boyfriend while the girl was his student.  The girl has made a complaint to those in charge of Miden and they are taking testimony and deciding whether the boyfriend should be banned from Miden.  In alternating chapters, the woman and man reflect on their relationship.

This book is being publicized as literary fiction.  I would place it more in the erotica genre, and low class erotica at that.  The language is consistently and needlessly obscene as are the sex scenes.  I don’t consider myself a prude and believe that sexual scenes can have a powerful effect when done properly.  However, this is more of a case where the story is just an excuse for writing trashy scenes.

I really did try to ignore the language and look beneath that for something of substance but was unable to find it.  I was fooled by the literary fiction description, by the fact that it has been bought for a TV series, by the fact that it was felt good enough to translate into English from Italian, and by reviews such as this:  “this uncompromising, fiercely intelligent novel confirms the moral usefulness of serious art”.  Maybe it was just me.  I’ll give it two stars because there were short sections involving the pregnant woman when she was talking about the baby that I found interesting.  But this is not one that I can recommend.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

THIS is why I love to read!

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Pursuit by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Abby Hayman has not had an easy life.  When her parents disappeared when she was 5 years old, she went to live with an aunt, who had troubles of her own.  Abby grew up confused by her memories of things she had been too young to understand.  She has a recurring dream of walking in a field of skeletons, which she finds completely terrorizing.  She’s 20 years old now and has just married William Zengler, a devout Christian who is madly in love with her.  That makes it all the more difficult to understand why she steps out into traffic the day after her wedding when she was so happy to be William’s bride.  Was it an accident or a suicide attempt?

The first two pages of this book proves, once again, that Joyce Carol Oates is a master at her craft.  Those pages were so chilling and pulled me right into this compelling, heartbreaking tale.   This is a very intense, dark story with some extremely brutal moments.  It’s more of a novella at only 144 pages, but Ms. Oates knows how to make every word count.  It punches your heart with a powerful emotional wallop.  Ms. Oates writes compassionately about the long term effects of war on soldiers and the devastating effect of violence on a family.  This one is going to haunt me for a long time to come.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Tender story of a mismatched pair of relatives

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Akin by Emma Donoghue

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Noah Selavaggio will soon be turning 80 years old.  In celebration of this milestone birthday, he’s making plans to visit Nice where he was born.  He’s discovered some old photos taken by his mother that are quite puzzling and he hopes to find some answers in Nice.  However, just days before he leaves, he receives a phone call from a social worker asking that he temporarily take care of an 11-year-old boy, Michael, who is his great-nephew.  Noah has never met Michael but he’s the closet relative the boy has other than his mother who is in prison and his aunt whom they’re having trouble reaching.  Noah well remembers Michael’s father, Vincent, and feels obligated to take Michael along with him to Nice.

This book is on quite a different level than the other Emma Donoghue books that I’ve read.  There’s a lot more humor in this one and I enjoyed the witty sparring between this unlikely pair.  Michael is very foul-mouthed and can be quite obnoxious but knowing the life he’s led, his character is very believable.  I admired the patience Noah shows Michael but then again Noah also knows about loss.  He still has long talks with his deceased wife.  Both of these characters are brought to life with compassion and understanding.  Noah’s mother’s photos lead them on a hunt for the truth that is quite a heart wrenching one and made the book quite compelling.  Could it be that Noah’s beloved mother was a Nazi collaborator?

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

Memorable and touching coming of age saga

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This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Young children are faced with a life that no child should have to face in a school for Native American children called the Lincoln School.  It’s Minnesota in 1932 during the Great Depression and Odie and Albert are orphans living at the school with the Indian children.  Albert tries and usually succeeds in following the rules but Odie is always at odds with the head of the school, who he calls “The Black Witch”.  Odie spends far too much time in the Quiet Room with his friend, Faria – a rat – and endures far too many beatings.  Their best friend is Mose, an Indian boy who is unable to speak.  As their situation becomes more and more unbearable, they break away in a canoe, taking little Emily.

Mr. Krueger is an author who writes from deep within his heart and it shows in every word of his books.  This book is reminiscent of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and has that same sort of magic to it.  While this can be looked at as a simple story, four young children escaping an abusive situation and striving to find a home, it also has deep layers in it.  Odie struggles with his concept of God.  Is God good and loving or is God like a tornado?  Every time he has a slight chance at a better life, it’s taken from him.

The author also touches on the tragedy of the American Indians in his very special character, Mose.  Mose can’t speak because his tongue was cut out when he was too young to remember why.  While Moses travels with the others, he learns of an awful incident where over 30 Sioux natives were hung without a fair trial and he needs time apart from his non-native friends to absorb this side of his heritage.   I was unaware before reading this book that there were boarding schools like the Lincoln School where Native American children were sent to become more “civilized”.  They were forced to wear American style haircuts and clothing, were forbidden to speak their native language and their names were changed.  They were separated from their families who were living on reservations.

The author has included a large cast of colorful characters, such as Jack, who Odie nicknames the pig scarer, who has demons of his own to battle; Sister Eve, a faith healer traveling with the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade; the Schofields and their daughter, Maybeth, who lights something new in Odie.

These four Vagabonds, as they refer to themselves, will always have a special place in my heart.  Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Excellent new series by the author of “Vera”

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The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Detective Matthew Venn’s father has died.  Venn is not welcome at the funeral so he stands outside.  His family is part of a strict religious sect and when Venn left that community, he also left his family.  Also, his mother blames him for his father’s death due to the shock of learning that Matthew married a man by the name of Jonathan Church.  Matthew and Jonathan are very happy together.  Jonathan runs Woodyard Centre that houses a day-care center, an artist colony and a counselling service center.

As he stands outside his father’s funeral, he’s called to the scene of an apparent murder.  Simon Walden was a resident of a home owned by Caroline, the daughter of a trustee of Woodyard Centre.  Caroline took Walden in when she learned that he was living with terrible guilt over a drunk driving accident which resulted in the death of a child.  Matthew is torn between investigating this murder or withdrawing due to the conflict of his husband’s affiliation with Woodyard Centre.

I’ve long wanted to read Ann Cleeves books since I very much enjoyed the TV series “Vera”.  When I saw that Ms. Cleeves was starting a new series, I knew this was the time to start reading her work.  This is a very slow paced mystery so if you’re looking for a lot of excitement, you won’t really find it here.  This author delves deeper than just setting up one thrill after another.  She writes from the heart and her characters are very human with all their faults.  I loved Matthew and Jonathan and Matthew’s sergeant, Jen.  And I loved the British seaside setting.  Matthew’s relationship with his family and Jonathan and the treatment of two young Down Syndrome girls are all handled with compassion.  The mystery turned out to a heart-wrenching one.  I’m looking forward to the next installment of this series and do hope it also makes it to the TV screen.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.