Book Review: The Quiet Child by John Burley and The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

The Quiet Child
John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, August 2017
ISBN 978-0-0624-3185-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  It’s the summer of 1954, and the residents of Cottonwood, California, are dying.  At the center of it all is six-year-old Danny McCray, a strange and silent child the townspeople regard with superstition, who appears to bring illness and ruin to those around him.  Even his own mother is plagued by a disease that is slowly consuming her.  Sheriff Jim Kent, increasingly aware of the whispers and rumors surrounding the boy, has watched the people of his town suffer, and he worries someone might take drastic action to protect their loved ones.  Then a stranger arrives, and Danny and his ten-year-old brother, Sean, go missing.  In the search that follows, everyone is a suspect, and the consequences of finding the two brothers may be worse than not finding them at all.

This is a tale of what appears to be a kidnapping gone horribly wrong.  But put aside any preconceptions you may have with regard to kidnappings – this is not like any conjecture you can imagine.

This is a difficult time for the residents of Cottonwood, where “it seemed everyone had something wrong.”  The protagonists are Michael McCray, a science teacher at Anderson Union High School, and his wife of 12 years, Kate.  Days go by, and no headway is made in finding their two kidnapped sons, despite the best efforts of Michael and Jim Kent, 65 and “the town’s only plumber and part-time sheriff,” who thinks “there was something out here, some trace of them.  There had to be.  People do not just disappear.  There was a concerted law enforcement effort under way.  They would find them – – soon, he thought.  He only hoped it would be soon enough.”  The boys are 6 and 10 years old, of whom Michael thinks “one a constant source of chatter and energy and the other an enigma, silent and indecipherable,” the eponymous brother.

The reader is introduced to Richard Banes, who is at the crux of most of what takes place in this novel, and who “had harbored the suspicion that he might be going insane. True, it was not a condition that had plagued him in the past.  But the recent events had been wild and unpredictable – – and beyond his ability to control.  If he had heard the story from someone else and not experienced it for himself, he would have scoffed at it and questioned their mental stability.    But here he was: incapacitated by a small child . . . ”

This is a psychological thriller of the highest order, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2017.

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The Last Mrs. Parrish
Liv Constantine
Harper, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-266757-1
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Amber Patterson is fed up.  She’s tired of being a nobody:  a plain, invisible woman who blends into the background.  She deserves more – – a life of money and power, like the one blond-haired, blue-eyed goddess Daphne Parrish takes for granted.  To everyone in the exclusive town of Bishops Harbor, Connecticut, Daphne – – a socialite and philanthropist – – and her real-estate mogul husband, Jackson, a man of apparently limitless wealth, are a couple straight out of a fairy tale.  Amber’s envy could eat her alive . . . if she didn’t have a plan.  Amber uses Daphne’s compassion to insinuate herself into the family’s life – – the first step in a meticulous scheme to undermine her.  Before long, Amber is Daphne’s closest confidante, traveling to Europe with the Parrishes and their lovely young daughters, and growing closer to Jackson.  But a skeleton from her past may destroy everything that Amber has worked toward, and if it is discovered, her well-laid plan may fall to pieces.

Part I of the novel is told from Amber’s perspective, Part II, roughly half-way through the book, from Daphne’s.  The two women meet at a gym they both attend, and are drawn together by a shared interest:  It appears that Daphne, through an organization called the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, puts out a magazine dealing with that disease.  Daphne tells Amber, when questioned, that she had lost her younger sister to that disease, 20 years earlier at the age of 16.  When Daphne asks, Amber reveals that her own younger sister had died of the disease at the age of 14.  That is the beginning of a friendship that becomes much more than just that, with Amber becoming almost of the Parrish family

The reader discovers late in the novel that Amber’s name isn’t even Amber – it was Laura Crump.  She had made everything up, including the ostensible existence of a sick sister, an abusive father, when in actuality she was a criminal, a fugitive.   But we are told very early on that the only sisters she does [or ever did] have are all alive and well.  She apparently makes monthly pilgrimages to the main library in Manhattan and to museums, the better to display her apparent knowledge and acumen to others, most importantly to Jackson Parrish.  She inveigles her way into the family dynamic and, in doing so, into the “world of the rich and mighty, mingling and toasting each other, smug and confident in their little one percent corner of the world,” and ultimately landing a job as Jackson’s new office assistant.  I have to admit I found myself at one point I could not help but admire Amber’s success in achieving her aim of worming herself into the Parrish world in many aspects, although that didn’t last too long.  The Parrish marriage of 12 years soon is threatened.   I also have to admit that once the 2nd half of the book is under way–from Daphne’s p.o.v.–that admiration quickly ended.

This novel received starred reviews from each of the most highly respected review sites in the industry, each comparing it favorably with “Gone Girl,” one of the mostly highly lauded novels of its kind in the last couple of years [and one I must admit I have never read, unlike, I suspect, most of the readers of this review, I humbly realize].  That said, “Mrs. Parrish” kept me turning the pages as quickly as I could until the very end.

Liv Constantine is the pen name of sisters Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine., a remarkable job, considering they live several states apart!  They have created a book that captivates the reader, and one I highly recommend.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2017.

Book Review: Turn It Up! by Jen Calonita

Turn It Up!
Jen Calonita
Point, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-16115-1
Hardcover

Meeting your mother’s expectations when you’re a high school sophomore is often tough, but when your mom is the headmaster of your school and was one of the founders of a once elite a cappella group, the ante is really upped.

That’s what Lidia Sato is looking at when the school year begins. The situation is immediately complicated by her seeing her co-captain and long time best friend Sydney, kissing Griffin Mancini, the boy she’s been crushing on forever. Lidia had bought into all the encouragement her bestie had given her, but every time she was in a position to talk to Griffin, her mind went blank and words failed her.

Despite Sydney’s best efforts to explain that Griffin initiated the kiss and she was as shocked as Lidia when it happened, what her friend saw (or so she believed), was painfully different. Lidia has a very public and messy meltdown during the recruiting party for the Nightingales, the group she and Sydney are trying to bring back to glory. What she says in front of the prospects would be bad enough, but she does it again not long after and then quits the group. Granted she’s also committed to dance and a shot at some really good performance options, but the way she reacts, coupled with some rather evil pranks by the boys a cappella group, the Kingfishers, puts Sydney and the other group members behind the eight ball in terms of coming together and restoring the Nightingales to prominence.

While interactions between the girls themselves and with the guys in their rival group are decently portrayed, the immaturity and repeatedly annoying behavior by both Lidia and Sydney gets pretty old as the story goes on. I can live with unpleasant, flawed or annoying characters if the author reveals a justification for their behavior, but that doesn’t happen here and the two come across as whiny.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, December 2017.

Book Reviews: The Knowing by Sharon Cameron and Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

The Knowing
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-94524-0
Hardcover

Hundreds of years ago, a select group—the brightest, some would say “the best”—humans exited Earth to populate a new planet in pursuit of a better life, for the people and even their habitat, this time. Regression would be the new progression, technology would be eliminated, to a certain extent, of course and mankind and mother nature would blissfully coexist. The socio-economic experiment was a success, but eventually the folks of the Canaan Project stopped responding to their counterparts on Earth. The fate of the colony became a constant scientific conundrum.

Both of Beckett’s parents worked tirelessly towards answers. For as long as he could remember his dad spoke passionately of the Canaan Project, ruminating possibilities and fantasizing of finding ruins. Being a curious and intelligent young man, Beckett also studied all available information and developed his own theories and hopes for the lost civilization. So, when their ship (finally) landed, actual exploration imminent, Beckett felt that his father was free to search for artifacts, but he believed in bigger discoveries. Beckett expected a close encounter of the evolved-human kind.

His field-trip-partner/friend-for-years, Jillian, accompanies him to map their routes while he gathers information. As data is submitted and instructions are received, Beckett begins to question the goal of this mission. Certain information has been deliberately withheld as a manipulation maneuver. Beckett does not know who to trust, but he’s sure that he’ll need help to get himself and anyone else that comes along, to safety.

Sometimes, even in fiction, there are lessons to be learned. When an absolutely fantastical tale illuminates misunderstandings and malintent while highlighting characters filled with only good intentions, that is the true magic of phenomenal sci-fi and Ms. Cameron is quite the conjurer. The Knowing is a companion to Ms. Cameron’s The Forgetting; you can pick it up today and dive right in without feeling lost…but you really should check out The Forgetting, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

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Honestly Ben
Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, April 2017
ISBN 978-0545858267
Hardcover

Ben is considerate, thoughtful and enviably introspective beyond his years.  He is also an adorably awkward, adolescent farm-boy attending an all-boys boarding school, on scholarship.  As the first Junior to be captain of the baseball team, the recipient of a prestigious award (the acceptance of which requires a speech) and a student struggling with calculus and sexual identity, Ben’s mind is full.  No time to contemplate how a straight guy could have crushed so hard on a gay dude.

The charismatic, somewhat quirky, and undeniably adorable, Hannah, is the perfect girlfriend, after all.  Confident in his heterosexuality, Ben is ready to spend time with his best friend, Rafe, again.  Once every single thing is in its respective, proper place, nothing is quite right.  As Ben realizes that there can be more than one right answer and certainly more than two options, he begins to speak out instead of turning away.  His confidence is inspiring and contagious with unexpected results.

Mr. Konigsberg deftly demonstrates the challenges and misconceptions that so many homosexual, bisexual, and gender-fluid teenagers are forced to face.  Honestly Ben is a spot-on, spectacular Young Adult read.  I will be donating my copy to my favorite HS classroom, of course.  This is too important for a limited audience; I’m hopeful that there will be many adult readers.  I can’t be the only one capable of being captivated and compelled by Ben Carver.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

Book Review: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Cherise Wolas
Flatiron Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-08143-8
Hardcover

In her first novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas stretches the boundaries of the “story within a story” form. The book begins with an article about Joan Ashby, an author who, at age twenty-one, landed a collection of short stories on the New York Times bestseller list and won a National Book Award. Her book, Other Small Spaces, was translated into thirty-five languages. Four years later Ashby again lands another collection of short stories on the bestseller list. Fictional Family Life is shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. The article includes a brief biography of Ashby and excerpts of an interview with her, before including two of her short stories.

Joan Ashby is on the top of the New York literary scene when she meets Martin Manning, who looks like a poet but is in reality an eye surgeon. She vowed at an early age never to fall in love or let anyone interfere with her writing, but Dr. Manning’s charm is hard to resist. Her only resistance to his proposal is the thought that he might want a family, but he assures her he doesn’t want any children.

So it comes as a shock to her, when in their first year of marriage, she discovers she is pregnant. When she shares the news with Martin, fully intending to terminate the pregnancy, he becomes misty eyed and declares “I’ve never been so happy” and runs out for champagne to celebrate. She debates whether to walk away from Martin, but eventually becomes resigned to the idea of parenthood, knowing that there will likely be a second child after the first.

During her courtship with Martin, and up until the birth of her first child, Joan was writing her first novel, The Sympathetic Executioners, which she trashed on the day before she went into labor. It is twenty-eight years before she publishes anything else. Her next book sees the light of day as the result of a betrayal, and a fracture within her family.

A story of the dissatisfaction of an upper middle class suburban woman, it is complicated by the inclusion of the various short stories and excerpts from the main character’s writing, which tend to be on the dark side. The book jacket blurbs mentions echoes of Joan Didion and Carson McCullers—I was reminded of Elizabeth Berg and Jane Smiley. I’d also like to read the rest of the included novel, The Sympathetic Executioners.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, November 2017.

Waiting On Wednesday (85)

Waiting On Wednesday is a weekly event that
spotlights upcoming releases that I’m really
looking forward to. Waiting On Wednesday
is the creation of Jill at Breaking the Spine.

This week’s “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Continue reading

Book Reviews: The Irregular by H.B. Lyle and Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

The Irregular
A Different Class of Spy #1
H.B. Lyle
Quercus, November 2017
ISBN: 978-1-6814-4026-2
Hardcover

It’s not easy for an author to come up with an original idea for a novel, much less a plot involving Sherlock Holmes.  But that is just what H.B. Lyle has done, albeit the great detective here only playing a minor cameo role, offstage, as it was.  Instead, he has grasped an historical development, the forerunners of Britain’s MI5 and MI6 in 1909 and using the “best” of the Baker Street Irregulars,Wiggins, as a protagonist.  Not only Holmes, but no less a personage than Winston Churchill plays a minor role in the plot.

The story revolves around Vernon Kell, who apparently headed up the original efforts to establish a counter-intelligence operation in Great Britain, hindered by his inability to find good agents until his friend, Holmes, suggested Higgins.  A substantial portion of the novel recounts Higgins’ exploits and a good deal of background on how the Baker Street Irregulars came to be.  And, of course, we learn a great deal about the conspiracies pre-dating World War I and espionage efforts by Germany and others not only to obtain secrets but also to sow discontent and confusion in London.

The novel is exciting, interesting and fast-moving.  It is an historical mystery, the beginning of what is promised to be a new series, and a welcome one. The author captures the atmosphere of 1909 London with sharp observations and dialogue.  We look forward to its sequel with great anticipation.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

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Earthly Remains
A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery #26
Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2647-4
Hardcover

Commissario Guido Brunetti, in the midst of interrogating a suspect, suddenly collapses (intentionally, to prevent a colleague from committing a foolish act) by faking a heart attack. He is taken to the hospital, where no evidence of an attack is found, but just high blood pressure.  While waiting for the results of tests, he concludes that he no longer enjoys his job, and after discussing it with his wife, and on the advice of the attending doctor, decides to go away from it all alone.

His wife sets him up with a villa owned by a relative on an island in the lagoon, where he intends to rest, row and read.  He rows with the caretaker, Davide Casati, whom he befriends.  Incidentally, Casati and Brunetti’s father won regatta years before.  All goes well until Casati is found drowned following a violent storm.

Brunetti then undertakes to investigate the circumstances of Casati’s death to determine whether it was an accident or suicide, despite his self-imposed sabbatical.  Along the way, the Commissario learns a lot about his friend, nature, and our failure to protect the environment, as well as the result of one’s actions during our lives.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

A Short History of Traditional/Cozy Mysteries Heroines

Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to talk about how cozy or traditional mysteries have changed since Miss Marple’s day.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue was released in July 2017.

http://www.kathleendelaney.net

There was a time when a traditional or cozy mystery often had a ‘woman of a certain age’ as the protagonist. Miss Marple immediately jumps to mind, but she wasn’t alone. Patricia Hightower had Miss Silver, Mary Roberts Reinheart had a visiting nurse who solved crimes for the police, and of course Hamilton Crane gave us Miss Seaton. All of these women were getting along in years, none of them had married, they were all smart and they all were adroit at solving the puzzle the murder presented. Eventually, they all died out. So did the authors.

The cozy mystery heroine was replaced with a series of vibrant, pretty young things, all intent on adventure and hopefully a little romance. If they get lucky, a lot of romance. They all have titian/flame or flaxen locks, blue/brown/green eyes with long thick lashes, a wasp-like waist, full bosoms and there is not a thick ankle in the lot. They run tea shops, bakeries, second hand clothing stores, bed and breakfasts…you get the idea. A lot of them are exciting, fun companions on their story journey but some struggle with a weak story line and as time has gone on, others with a certain sameness that is a little off-putting.

Then, not too long ago, the older heroine returned. Only, she isn’t the same. The sharpness is gone, the independence, the ability to use her years of experience to solve a puzzle has disappeared. So, largely, has the puzzle. Today solving the crime is easy, and our heroine doesn’t catch the murderer with deduction but because she manages to bash him over the head with her walker or catch him in the crook of her cane.

I don’t find these kinds of books very satisfactory. These nursing home grannies make me a little nervous and a little hard to believe.  I also have reached that ‘certain age’ and am only too aware that physical limitations start to raise their unwelcome heads, making some of these stories improbable. I would find it much more interesting if these grannies solved the murder with their wits, not their canes. l appreciate a good story that keeps me guessing, that puts me on the edge of my seat, that keeps me turning the pages. And that is what I set out to write when I created the Mary McGill canine mysteries.

Mary is a retired school teacher, widowed and for some time was bored. Still full of vitality and immensely capable, she needed something challenging to do. Her small California town obliged. She now runs most of the charitable and holiday events the town hosts, and runs them well.  As it turned out, she is also pretty good at solving murders. She knows most everybody in town, knows their history, and what makes them tick. She doesn’t gossip but people tell her things, so when a person shows up someplace they would never normally go, she notices. Or, when someone keeps company with someone they normally would shy away from, she wonders.

A compassionate woman, she is always ready to lend a hand, so when the owner of the local pet store is found murdered (Purebred Dead) she takes his now homeless cocker spaniel in for a day or two. That day or two turns into forever. Mary has never had a pet so feels uneasy, but not for long. Now it is Mary and Millie who run rummage sales, put on Christmas Extravaganzas and organize the annual 4th of July celebration and solve murders.

Mary and Millie’s latest adventure, Blood Red White and Blue, is a finalist in the Dog Writers of America’s annual writing contest in the best fiction dog book of the year.

The “woman of a certain age” amateur detective has returned.