The Party by Robyn Harding

COVER Harding The Party

Hannah Sanders is turning sixteen. She’s a good student, she gets good grades and has nice friends, and so her parents trust her. Rather than a big flashy party, they decide to have a sweet sixteen party at their multimillion-dollar home in a wealthy Bay Area suburb (I’m picturing Lafayette or Orinda). She invites four girlfriends over for a slumber party with pizza, cake, and movies. What could possibly go wrong?

Hannah’s parents, Jeff and Kim, have a tension-filled marriage, revealed by Kim’s regular use of Ambien to get to sleep: “…there was far too much tension in her marriage to handle without a good night’s sleep.” Jeff seems to wonder how their marriage got to where it is: “Once, they’d gone to Mexico and Kim had downed tequila shots and danced on the bar in her bra. And then Kim became a mother and it was like flicking a switch. Overnight, Kim became responsible, earnest, doting…boring.”

Kim sets the ground rules for the night, giving a little speech that clearly spells them out: no boys, no booze, and no drugs. Then they pretty much leave the girls to have fun in the rec room. But Jeff wants to be the “cool Dad” so he picks up a bottle of champagne and sneaks it to them, figuring one bottle will give each girl a small glass – again, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, things DO go wrong, with a tragic accident in the middle of the night that starts the unraveling of the façade of their picture-perfect life. Much like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, my guess is that for many readers there is a bit of schadenfreude as they watch things fall apart. Life in the perfect suburbs – it really can’t be THAT perfect, can it? Doesn’t this family have some of the same issues, flaws and problems as the rest of us? As things spiral downward in the story, we learn of the deception, lies, and betrayal that lie under that façade, for the girls as well as the adults. When the victim’s mother reminds her “You’re the victim here,” her daughter asks her “Don’t you remember high school at all?…No one likes a fucking victim!”

After the party, “Hannah had experienced a perspective shift. Despite the values her mother had tried to instill in her, getting straight A’s wasn’t actually the most important thing in the world. Survival, that’s what mattered. Getting through the gauntlet of tenth grade with your self-esteem intact was what counted.” When she is encouraged by her counselor to do the right thing socially following the party, she’s torn: “Hannah didn’t want to be the girl with strength of character. She wanted to be the cool girl, the popular girl, the girl with the hot boyfriend.” At the same time, Kim (Hannah’s mom) finds her self dealing with both the teenagers and the adults and realizes “There is only one thing as mean as teenagers: soccer moms.”

Told from the alternating perspectives of Hannah, each of her parents, and the victim’s mother, the pacing of the story is just right. We lean of the horrific accident early on, and we know exactly what caused it. And details about both current and past behaviors of individual adults are revealed subtly, and only later do we learn how these will impact the unfolding drama.

I was in the mood for some escapist fiction, something that was not overly challenging but was completely entertaining. This fit the bill on all counts, and I appreciate having an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Party, thanks to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley. Five stars for the combination of domestic suburban drama, moral dilemma, suburban skewering, and all-around good story.

Astrophysics for People In a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cover Tyson Astrophysics

Neil, you don’t know me at ALL, do you? I love you – except for that thing where you did a TV remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which ended up being disappointingly cartoonish…but after reading this new book, maybe that really IS my level! I had such high hopes going in.…

The marketing is superb: “So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day. While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.” (BTW, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley for the copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.)

As I began, the preface sounded like it was meant for me: “…every one of us has looked up at the night shy and wondered: What does it all mean?…And, what is my place in the universe?” And I was thinking, OMG! Neil! Thank you! Then, you continue: “If you’re too busy to absorb the cosmos via classes, textbooks, or documentaries …seek a brief but meaningful introduction to the field…” and I was HOOKED! This sounded perfect!!!

Then I began reading. In just a couple of pages, I was looking at “The ordinary photon is a member of the boson family. The leptons most familiar to the physicist are the electron and perhaps the neutrinos; and the most famous quarks are…well, there are no familiar quarks.” HUH? You lost me at photon (and boson and lepton).

I DID appreciate the places where he brought the abstract down to touching on real life (for some of us): “In America, local school boards vote on subjects to be taught in the classroom. In some cases, votes are cast according to the whims of curtural, political tides.” And this: “When I pore over the data that establish the mysterious presence of dark matter and dark energy throughout the universe, sometimes I forget that every day—every twenty-four-hour rotation of Earth—people kill and get killed in the name of someone else’s conception of God, and that some people who do not kill in the name of God, kill in the name of needs or wants of political dogma.”

So, what happened for me reading this was I was reminded that I am totally ignorant when it comes to science!!! Maybe Dr. Tyson will write some version of Astrophysics for Dummies. I would try it! And I really am glad I read this, because I love when he talks about our place in the universe and how the diminishing of science education can be a real disaster. It’s just that the beginning, when he got into the actual scientific lingo, it seemed there was a presumption of a certain level of scientific literacy – which I CLEARLY DO NOT HAVE.

So, I am giving this three stars. Five for the man and his approach to making science accessible to everyone – but a loss of two for the headache I got trying to follow the science.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

COVER Dionne Marsh Kings Dtr

I had read so much hype about The Marsh King’s Daughter, I was eager to read the advance copy I received from Penguin Group/Putnam & NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I was expecting a riveting psychological thriller, filled with suspense. What I got was a bit different…

I suppose I have to give it more than three stars, because it was REALLY unsettling. The protagonist, Helena, is a young wife and mother living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with her husband and two daughters. She earns money selling homemade jam and jelly, and is making deliveries of her products when she hears on the radio that a prisoner has escaped from the local prison…a man who abducted a girl and and kept her prisoner for years (in “the marsh,” where they were apparently able to live for years without electricity, running water, heat, medical care, etc.). The prisoner, called “The Marsh King,” fathered a child with the girl, and the three of them lived in the marsh for years.

We learn early on that Helena was the baby, that her father is using all his Native American skills to elude the authorities, and that Helena is the only one who can track him and bring him to justice. We know this because it is beaten into our heads relentlessly. And we know that Helena’s childhood was an ugly one, when she tells us “…my childhood came to and end the day my father tried to drown my mother.” She “…was the daughter of a kidnapped girl and her captor. For twelve years, I lived without seeing or speaking another human being other than my parents.”

So yes, I was totally creeped out by the plot…by even more by the character whose horrific deeds form the frame for the plot. I know it was effective because I kept making noises when things happened in the story – noises that made my husband keep asking things like “Are you all right?”

So, we kind of know how the plot is going to unfold, although there are some twists and turns along the way. It is more a tracking story than a mystery, and it is somewhat might mare-inducing…but again, this sort of tells me that Dionne accomplished what she set out to do: write a memorable thriller. Did I LIKE it? No. Creeped me out a bit too much for comfort. Do I recommend it? Yes. It isn’t my kind of thing, but I know many people who will love it. Four stars.

 

Lockdown by Laurie R. King

Cover King Lockdown

I live on the Central Coast of California, where it’s borderline heresy to be anything less than a huge fan of beloved local author Laurie King. True confession time: I admit it, I tried a couple of her books and they just didn’t grab me. But seeing that her latest book, Lockdown, was subtitled “A Novel of Suspense,” and that it was set in a middle school in a small rural town on the central coast (that sounded eerily like the one where my husband worked for many years) made me LEAP at the opportunity to read an advance copy! (Thanks to NetGalley and Random House – Ballantine.)

The setting is Guadalupe Middle School, where Principal Linda McDonald (who has been in charge for the past year) has been working tirelessly to change the culture from that of a gang-ridden, crime infested school to…something else. The story takes place on a single day, with flashback chapters interspersed to present the backstories for some of the characters (including Linda and her husband Gordon, who routinely helps out and supports his wife in her professional endeavor). Another main character is local cop Olivia, who intuits that Gordon has a mystery that might be revealed if she were to use her law enforcement resources to do some sleuthing.

As Linda gets to school, it is the morning of her long-awaited undertaking: Career Day, when she hopes to present students with ideas and options that might inspire them to escape their environment. “They gym would be packed to the rafters with seven hundred-plus adolescents, on the brink of boiling over, into impatience, mockery, even the violence that was never far away.”   The students are “ages eleven to fourteen. Half child, half adult, all hormones and passion…” One of the invited speakers, Thomas Atcheson, who plans to speak about the tech industry, has a different perspective: “”Career Day.” What an exercise in futility! Urging ill-trained children to become entrepreneurs was like telling finger-painters to aim for the Sistine Chapel: those with drive required no encouragement.”

Other important characters include the Coach and several students: the basketball star, the cousin of the gang member on trial for murdering a beautiful young girl, and the victim’s sister. Then there is the janitor, an immigrant who has a secret and takes a huge interest in the community.

Told from alternating perspectives, the story of Guadalupe’s Career Day its effect on several people’s lives, is filled with tension, mystery and outstanding character development. I love the way Ms. King presented the school in a way that anyone who has worked with students in middle or high school will recognize: ”…even the oldest, most sneering of these adolescents harbored secret pockets of hope, a hidden belief that the world might still hold out an outstretched hand in place of a fist.”

Impossible to say more without spoiling, which I NEVER do! It’s well written, and a relatively quick read with memorable characters. Five stars.

 

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

COVERGrann Killers Flower Moon

Just over a century ago, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. In this amazing book, David Grann presents the results of his exhaustive research into one of the most horrific and shameful eras in U.S. history: the “Reign of Terror” as the Osage began to be killed off for their land (and the incredible wealth they achieved due to the oil underneath their land). It’s a chilling, riveting piece of nonfiction – and it reads like fiction.

As the U.S. government was inclined to do, they shoved the Osage onto a godforsaken piece of land in the corner of Oklahoma, unaware that whoever had the rights to the land would be rich beyond imagining. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage seemed to have it made: they bought cars and rode in them with their chauffeurs, they built mansions, and they sent their children off to study in Europe.

Beginning with an isolated death here and there, it became apparent that one by one, they were being killed off. Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose story is central to the book, saw her entire family murdered: her sister was shot, her mother slowly poisoned, and then there was the firebombing. The Osage began to die in significant numbers under mysterious circumstances.

This part of Oklahoma was really one of the last bits of the Wild West, evidenced by the fact that anyone who tried to investigate the killings would themselves be murdered. J. Edgar Hoover (a truly weird little man) and his newly created F.B.I. took up the case as their first major homicide investigation and at first blundered terribly due to the rampant corruption in the early days of the Bureau. But Hoover brought in Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who put together an undercover team who bravely worked with the Osage to reveal a deeply ingrained conspiracy.

Killers of the Flower Moon not only reveals the cold blooded murders of dozens of Osage, and lays out the horrible treatment of Native Americans that allowed the crimes to be ignored, covered up, and/or forgotten.

I found myself highlighting tons of paragraphs as I was reading…but I can’t bear to go back and retrieve them to share in my review. Seriously, this book is haunting and devastating. I admit I was relieved when my Kindle showed I was 75% of the way through but the book was done – yes, a full 25% of the book is notes, and I was ready to stop reading about the relentless horror.

It’s an incredible piece of research into a part of U.S. history that we might wish to forget – but which we should NEVER forget. Five stars, and thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Shadow Man by Alan Drew

Cover Drew Shadow Man

Talk about a grabber: the description for Alan Drew’s book Shadow Man starts out “What Dennis Lehane does for Boston, Alan Drew does for Southern California in this gritty thriller…” I thought “what a trifecta!” I’ve been a Dennis Lehane fan for many years, I grew up in Orange County, CA (I am a huge fan of the earlier books by T. Jefferson Parker that were also set in the OC), and thrillers are among my favorite genres. So I couldn’t WAIT to dive into this book! Unfortunately, my husband snagged my Kindle and was instantly hooked, so I had to wait a few days for my chance. Wow, was it worth the wait!

The protagonist is Ben Wade, a police detective who left the LAPD and moved back to the fictional town of Rancho Santa Elena, partly in a failed attempt to save his marriage to Rachel. (Note the town is fictional, but it PERFECTLY captures the Orange County I escaped some years ago.) Ben is a good guy and a loving father, but he clearly has some baggage: as Natasha, the medical examiner and potential romantic interest, points out: “she could see why Rachel left him. He was a room with a locked door, and a wife wanted access.” Ben works on two separate cases throughout the book, one involving a serial killer and the other a mysterious gun death of a teenage boy, whose body was found near the residential labor camp that provides labor for the remaining crops that haven’t yet been replaced by the suburban sprawl that is gobbling up Orange County. No spoilers ahead, but great plot development in both areas.

The setting is incredibly important to the story. As the book opens, the Santa Anna winds are blowing: “The morning had been heavy with gritty smog, the taste of leaded gas on the tongue… winds had burst into the coastal basin midmorning, dry gusts billowing off the desert in the east that electrified the air…” And anyone who has lived in Southern California will nod in agreement with Ben’s thought that there “…wasn’t any scientific evidence for this, but every cop knew something went haywire in people when the winds hit.”

Drew clearly knows the area, and I love the way he reveals what makes Rancho Santa Elena distinctly different from his previous life in LA: the town “… survived on being the opposite of L.A.—clean, organized, boring.” The essence of much of Orange County is due to the people who have moved there: They “…were afraid of the world; that’s why they moved here, to escape it. They believed master-planned order—straight streets, identical houses, brightly lit shopping centers—would keep them safe from the outside world.”

Along with the setting, the characters come alive with Drew’s outstanding descriptive skill: he notes a woman who is “Blonde of course, radiating the forced sexual brightness of plastic surgery and makeup.” (yes, I KNOW these people!) Not everyone is in the same class, including “…beach bums who lived in rotting wooden apartments and worked stocking grocery shelves so that they could ride the waves every day.” Sounds like my adopted hometown of Santa Cruz, which frequently reminds people of Orange County in the 60s.

Even further down the social ladder are the farmworkers who are an integral part of the story. Drew captures their situation and interweaves the immigration issue without being pedantic, always keeping the story moving while at the same time making the reader aware of the class distinctions that are such a strong characteristic of the area. Talking about the farmworkers, we learn that ICE “…harassed the camp every few months, sending a few people back over the border. A cynical game, really, since the owners of the fields didn’t want their people deported, but local immigration needed to look as if the were doing their job. So, a compromise: Haul a few away, get it in the newspapers to appease a certain type of vote, and then let more come in the replace the ones sent home.” Wow.

Ben’s investigations lead him toward two social issues:  the plight of the farmworkers and the effects of child abuse. As he ponders why the latter is often so well hidden, he reflects, “ “There were a few rumors among the teachers.” Jesus. What was the law worth if it was used to keep people quiet about what they all knew?”

I loved this book! It more than met my high expectations, with its compelling plot and relatable characters. But even more, it is the best kind of novel: one that truly entertains the reader while making us THINK. Ben Wade is a great character, and I hope Shadow Man is the first in a series.

For any refugees from behind the Orange Curtain, you will totally relate to Rancho Santa Elena, with lines like “Sigalert for an accident on the 22…everything backed up to the Crystal Cathedral” and the description of what seems to clearly be the Melrose Abbey Mortuary, which is “…crammed between a strip mall dotted with taquerias and a cement wall that separated the cemetery from the rush of the Santa Ana Freeway.” AWESOME!

After finishing the book, I read a few comments from people who were complaining that this is not actually a thriller. My response is “not only is it a thriller, it is a good one, and so much more!” Can’t wait for more from Alan Drew! (Neither can my husband.) Five enthusiastic stars!

NOTE: I appreciate that I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for my honest review.