The Bad Daughter by Joy Fielding

 

With all the crap going on in the world, I have been ready for some good fun escapist entertainment. Hoping for something to take over my brain for a few hours, I began reading Joy Fielding’s The Bad Daughter (thanks to Random House-Ballantine and NetGalley who provided a copy in return for my honest review).

Right off, I loved the vulnerability of the protagonist, Robin, who at the very beginning of the story starst to have a panic attack when she picks up a voice mail message from her sister Melanie. They haven’t spoken in two years, and have been estranged ever since their father married Tara, who was Robin’s best friend growing up. Oh, and by the way, Tara was engaged at the time to the Robin and Melanie’s brother when she ran off with their Dad. Got that? In any case, Melanie calls to tell Robin that their father, Tara, and Tara’s young daughter have been brutally attacked in their home in Red Bluff, CA. The kid was shot, the wife/mom is dead, and dad is in the hospital clinging to life.

When Tara married her father, Robin left Red Bluff and went to Berkeley where she got her master’s in psychology, became a therapist, and got on with her life. She’s now living in L.A., engaged to an apparently perfect guy – or is he??—and she feels like the “…panic attacks she used to experience on an almost daily basis were part of her past. “

So Robin heads back to Red Bluff. As she looks into the situation, she begins to wonder if this might have been something more than a home invasion/botched burglary attempt. It seems that everyone—her sister Melanie, her autistic therefore less-than-communicative nephew, her absent brother, and even Tara, her father’s wife—had something to hide.

For those who don’t know, the setting is interesting: “Approximately 14,000 people lived in Red Bluff, most of them white and straining toward middle class. The town’s motto was “A Great Place to Live,” although Robin had always thought “A Great Place to Leave” would probably be a more suitable slogan.” Personally, I’ve always been a bit creeped out by Red Bluff ever since I read Perfect Victim, the book about the “girl in a box.” It’s the true story about a young woman (Colleen Stan) who was kidnapped and held by a mill worker named (I’m not kidding here) Cameron Hooker and kept in a box for SEVEN YEARS. Oh and the neighbors, who knew she was there, with Hooker AND HIS WIFE AND KIDS, never thought there was anything weird. It’s a long story, but it left a lasting impression on my view of Red Bluff. Plus, it’s hotter than hell and it seems people get weird in that kind of relentless heat…

Anyway, figuring out who exactly is The Bad Daughter totally entertained me for several hours. A tiny bit of willing suspension of disbelief required her and there, but nothing too blatant. Not great literature, but doesn’t pretend to be. For what it is, four stars.

 

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Last year, I read Jane Harper’s debut novel, the thriller The Dry, which introduced Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk. I LOVED it, so I jumped at the chance to read the second novel featuring Agent Harper, Force of Nature (thanks to Flatiron Books and NetGalley) prior to publication in return for my honest review.

In this second installment in the series, Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are called to the Giralang Range, because a woman is missing. A corporate team building trip, with five men hiking in one direction and five women going another way goes awry. The two groups were supposed to meet up after three days in the wild, but something has gone wrong and only four women return.

The story follows the police, the search party, and Aaron as they investigate and look for the missing woman (or her corpse?). This progress is related in chapters alternating with the story of the trek as told by the other women who were on the trip. There was so much going on behind the scenes, with tons of secrets, corporate intrigue, grudges and jealousy, so there is a ton of material for Aaron to unravel.

LOTS of suspense, and vivid descriptions of gorgeous scenery and interesting characters. While The Dry focused more on Aaron’s own personal story, Force of Nature continues to reveal details about his past.

While there is violence, there is no gore. I love this writer and this series, and eagerly await the next one from Jane Harper. Five stars.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah’s books are beloved by millions (think The Nightingale), partly for their vivid descriptions of both place and people. They also evoke strong emotional responses to situations and relationship[s that may not be part of the reader’s everyday experience, but yet seem completely familiar because of the author’s skillful writing. So I was particularly happy to receive a copy of The Great Alone (to be released in early 2018) from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in return for this honest review.

First, let’s get this out of the way: one of my stranger quirks is that I have a hard time reading novels set in cold climates (I HATE being cold). So I read at least half of this snuggled under a down comforter even though today (Thanksgiving) it’s in the mid-70s here on the Central Coast of California. That made me less likely to love this book, but I am glad I persisted.

Set in the 1970s, The Great Alone revolves around the family of Vietnam vet, ex-POW, and PTSD sufferer Ernt Allbright, who has tried to get his life together after returning from Vietnam a completely changed man. He is enduring sleepless nights, flashbacks, nightmares and bursts of anger. He’s not the only one suffering: his wife Cora and their 13-year-old daughter Leni are deeply affected by Ernt’s struggles. Things are rocky in the Allbright family as Ernt has trouble holding a job, they move regularly, and the parents frequently fight – all of which are very troubling for Leni, who longs for stability. So when Ernt inherits a cabin and land in Alaska from a dead soldier, he takes his family north with the idea that they will live off the land and be free of the stress they have been experiencing. A new start! They buy a VW van (very 70s!) and set out, completely unprepared for the harsh wilderness they encounter in Kenaq, Alaska.

The descriptions of the dilapidated shack called a “cabin” (no electricity or running water) were (literally) chilling. Despite the family’s hard work (assisted by some interesting community members) and effort to make a go of things, Ernt’s condition worsens as his battles with alcohols increase. Leni and Cora have a close relationship, and Leni learns to find comfort in books, something I imagine many readers can relate to.

Over time, Leni develops friendships and she and Cora find support in the community. The alcoholism, domestic violence, and harsh conditions are terribly challenging. The mother-daughter relationship is fascinating, although I wonder how many readers will find themselves wishing for such a bond and similar support in their own challenging family situations.

The bottom line is there is much to love about this book, especially seeing Leni searching for her identity and some stability at the same time, and her search for identity and roots. At the same time, it’s instructive about both the effect of war on both military members and their families – and instructive about the reality of trying to live off the land vs. the dream shared by many. Another winner for Hannah. Five stars.

 

Look For Me by Lisa Gardner

 I am a big fan of mysteries, and each year I read what seems like a ton of them – especially those featuring a “plucky heroine.” So I was pretty sure I had read Lisa Gardner before, but looking through goodreads and my blog, I see a bunch of Lisas (See, Wingate, Jewell) – but nothing by Lisa Gardner. So I am clearly a bit late to the party here, but thanks to Dutton and NetGalley, I just read Look for Me, Lisa’s latest (published 2018), AND  I just learned this is the TENTH novel featuring Detective D.D. Warren of the Boston Police Department. (Like I said, late to the party).

This latest in the series  all takes place in a dizzying span of a couple of days, and begins when Detective Warren is called to a homicide scene, where four members of a family have been savagely murdered. The fifth member of the family, a sixteen-year-old girl named Roxanna (or Roxy) is missing, along with the two family dogs.

Roxy is a likely suspect, or possibly she was out walking the dogs and narrowly escaped being the fifth victim, D.D. isn’t sure which. An Amber Alert goes out, and she and her team start an intense search for Roxy (and the dogs). They are joined in the hunt by Flora Dane, who was a crime victim featured in Gardner’s Find Her (#8 in the D.D. Warren series), and now is on a mission to avenge crimes (including burning a rapist to death) and provide support for survivors.

 Some of the chapters are told in the first person by Flora, gradually revealing her backstory and explaining the reason she is so hot to find Roxy (no real spoiler here, but Roxy has recently joined Flora’s online chat group, which is by invitation only – Sarah, who is one of Flora’s rescued victims and another member of the group, has befriended Roxy and invited her to join, so Flora has some insider info that D.D. needs). D.D. and Flora both are looking for justice, but it might come in different forms… 

There are also chapters that are essays written by Roxy’s little sister Lola, one of the murder victims. She wrote them as a series for a school assignment, and they gradually reveal some of the horror endured by the sisters during their time in foster care.

As a former foster parent, the stories of the children in foster care (and the system that “cares” for them) hit me pretty hard. And the suspense was terrific. I was seriously tempted to turn to the end to find out WTH had gone on, but I persisted J and am glad I stuck with it.

Good characterization, and the whole thing was chilling.  I’m still not sure how I have missed this series, and am also not sure if the others can stand alone or should have been read in order to fully appreciate them, but I am about to find out! And I will definitely look for future novels by Ms. Gardner. Anyone who likes a good suspenseful mystery/thriller without TOO much graphic violence and especially fans of plucky heroines and police procedurals (in this case, both!) will enjoy this. Five stars

 

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

I started this book, and after a few pages of VERY intense and detailed narrative about bombs, bomb making,  and what they can do, I just put it aside. I just wasn’t in the mood for something so dark. Then my husband picked it up and he REALLY liked it and thought I would as well. He was right! So, with thanks to Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press and NetGalley, I give The Bomb Maker four enthusiastic stars – and I will be reading more o Perry’s work.

The story opens with a threat called in to the LAPD Bomb Squad, and the results of the detailed bomb-making in the opening of the book result in a horrific event. Half the entire bomb squad (including the man in charge) has been obliterated, and they need a hero. The protagonist, Dick Stahl, is asked by a friend and former colleague to come and take over on a temporary basis until they can get things somewhat up to speed (it takes a full year to train a bomb squad technician).

Stahl was both a cop and in the military and he knows about people as well as bombs, so he is the perfect guy to figure out the process and techniques of the extremely evil villain, a guy who has been recruited by an unnamed organization who promises to pay him ten million dollars for his skills.

Along the way, Stahl gets involved with co-workers in various ways, and although I don’t think many people are as ideal (smart, beautiful, thoughtful) as the two main characters, it actually didn’t seem weird to me that they hooked up right away.  It was handled fairly well, even though there was a bit of male fantasy fulfillment in the actions of Diane at the end of Stahl’s first day on the job. But it’s going to make a great movie – in fact, as the tension mounted and the situation with the bomb maker was resolved, I found myself thinking that if it ended in a certain way, it was probably written with a screenplay in mind. It did, it probably was, and I will most likely go see it when it comes out.

Mindful Aging by Andrea Brandt

I’ve been thinking a lot about topics related to what I’d call “Healthy Living for Seniors,” which includes nutrition, exercise, positive attitude, and mindfulness. Frankly, I was spinning in circles, so I was particularly pleased to receive a copy of the new book Mindful Aging from PESI Publishing & Media and NetGalley in return for my honest review. The author, Andrea Brandt, a therapist in the Los Angeles area, says she has “… discovered that body-oriented therapy is the most effective treatment available today for people who seek to bring their inner world and external world into harmony…” I expected the book to expand on her thoughts about how a mindset she calls ‘realistic positivity can help the reader interested in incorporating mindfulness to their aging process.

The blurb for the book promised to help me “throw out the old stereotypes about getting older and move toward the welcoming new evidence that your future is alive with possibility, providing steps to thrive today and into your golden years…” with “…tools to help …embrace a new mindset and blaze a new trail …fueled by passion, purpose, and creativity.” Since it also said it was full of tools and exercises, I was hooked, but wary with high expectations.

Some of the chapter headings were particularly intriguing, including topics such as “letting go” (of things that aren’t working), “finding joy,” “expressing your creativity,” and “developing your spiritual side.” Each of the chapters includes the personal life stories of real people to expand on the topic, and then (best of all!) she provides strategies and worksheet exercises to help guide the reader toward a more mindful aging process.

Included along the way are ways to cope with loss, embrace our mortality, deal with anger and/or negative thinking (all of which resonated with me), and become more positive in general.

I found that including the stories and the exercises in each chapter was especially helpful. I’ve read a fair amount on the various topics covered in Mindful Aging, and some of the people wrote in a very “woo-woo” way (too much even for someone from Santa Cruz). This isn’t the case with Dr. Brandt – her style is accessible and the readability is excellent. Five stars.

 

MAD Librarian by Michael Guillebeau

OK, full disclosure: I am a retired librarian, and the first 8 or 9 years of my life were spent in public libraries in Northern California. And, frankly, one of the big factors that made me leave to work in the private sector (aka “the dark side”) was having to go to the funding gods (Board of Supervisors, City Council) and GROVEL for money every freaking year. We would trot out the cute kids who talked about the Summer Reading Program, the studies showing…what everyone knows: libraries are ESSENTIAL. I just couldn’t face another budget cycle (and also being told to wear pink the Board of Supes meeting just about turned me into a lunatic). So, the opportunity to read MAD Librarian by Michael Guillebeau (thanks to Madison Press/IBPA and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review was one I just couldn’t pass up!

The protagonist (heroine?), Serenity Hammer, is a mad librarian in the Southern town of Maddington – mad because the city council thinks libraries aren’t really needed, so they won’t give her adequate funding for the library. It’s so bad she can’t pay the library’s bills – until she is online and comes across a fund and transfers it to the library account. Voila! She can pay the bills! The child of hippies who is now married to a cop, Serenity has some pangs of guilt but since money keeps flowing into the account, she (along with some interesting staff members) perseveres. Revenge Fantasy!!!!

This book has apparently pissed off some readers—which literature SHOULD do, IMHO. But not everyone is mad for the same reasons you might think. Rather than be mad at the lack of support for libraries or the corrupt politics or the sexism Serenity (and seemingly all library staff) deals with, in some strange way I don’t quite follow they are mad at – the author? Not sure, but I just know this book was a lot of fun to read. As someone who found a small $$$ way to help a public library (not to the extent of adding a 7-story addition, but enough to improve things), I appreciated it – anything that makes me laugh AND think is always good!

Michael Guillebeau is generously donating $$ to benefit libraries, but that’s not the only reason this gets FIVE stars – it’s just great fun to read while making a valuable point about the need for libraries today more than ever (and if I hear one more person say we don’t need the new library being built in the town where I live because “everything is online” and “you can do research on Google,” I will scream). Thankfully, our mayor and a City Council member are both very active in our Friends group and huge supporters of the library!

 

Killing Pace by Douglas Schofield

Back in 2015, I read and reviewed Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield, so when (thanks to St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books  and NetGalley) I had the opportunity to read Schofield’s new novel, Killing Pace, in return for my honest review, I leapt at it.

Like Time of Departure, Killing Pace also features a female protagonist facing some crime-related challenges. Time of Departure was set in Florida, and while Killing Pace begins in Florida, it then moves back and forth between Sicily and Florida.

The first chapter is straightforward, and provided me with a good hook, as it described a woman named Lisa Green crawling bleeding and barefoot out of a car accident, completely confused. Not only does she not know where she is or how she got there, she doesn’t even remember who she is. In the next chapter, the woman begins to regain memory with flashes of remembrance related to Flight 103 (crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland), conversations with an older woman, and eating Nutella. She beats the crap out of the man who had been holding her captive and reports herself missing to the police. The next section, titled Sarah, describes the activities of a female Customs and Border Protection Office named Sarah Lockhart, and just as I was wondering if she was the woman in the car accident (despite the different name), the next section was back to Lisa. Because my reading was interrupted by a couple of weeks of personal chaos, I was a bit disoriented by the shifts among Lisa, Sarah, and yet another female character, Laura Pace – but in looking back over the book, I realize this was just me – Schofield did a great job weaving the sections together, and it all made sense.

The story becomes an international chase, involving not just Sarah’s efforts in Italy and Miami on behalf of the US Border Control, but expanding to include the Sicilian mafia, human trafficking (infants taken from Syrian refugees and made available for adoption to wealthy American couples, also known as “baby laundering”), and smuggling. There is also a tiny bit of romantic interest, which I would expect will be explored in the next Laura Pace novel (and I hope there will be one!). And I JUST realized the title is a play on words!!

There are several issues explored, including questions of trust, ethical behavior of government officials, and loyalty. Like Time of Departure, this novel requires some willing suspension of disbelief, but I read with the attitude of “just go along for the ride,” and I am glad I did. Following the two-week hiatus between when I started this book and yesterday when I picked it up again, I was hooked and spent the majority of the day yesterday reading it. I love mystery-thrillers than take over my whole day, and give this one four stars. I look forward to reading more from Mr. Schofield, whose experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney contributes to his ability to tell a story that hooks the reader.

 

 

Love and Laughter In the Time of Chemotherapy by Manjusha Pawagi

 

Manjusa Pawagi was in the prime of life: 47 years old, mother to 11-year old twins, with a rewarding career as a judge in the Court of Justice in Ontario, Canada. Then, in 2014 she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, and this book is her memoir of the two years following that diagnosis.

I have two a good friend who is battling multiple myeloma and recently had a stem cell transplant. Like Pawagi, she has written about her battle with humor and honesty – and, also like Pawagi, she can be very funny.

I l0ve stories celebrating survival, and appreciate the forthright way this book faces difficult truths. Unlike some other “survival stories,” this is not at all faith based. In fact, she tells us in Chapter 7, “ I’m an atheist too, but I’m firmly convinced that if I turn out to be wrong and there is a God, and all the accompanying heaven/hell thing, I am definitely going to heaven. I have no theological basis for this, but I know it would be ridiculously unfair if I were barred because of what I consider to be a mere technicality, which I equate to the minor procedural irregularities I see in court all the time, and which I either ignore or patch up after the fact in some way. Because, while I do not believe in God, I do believe in justice’

Thanks to NetGalley and Second Story Press for the opportunity to read this in return for my honest review. Four enthusiastic stars.

 

The Plant-Based Solution by Joel Kahn, M.D.

I love good books that promote healthy eating/vegetarianism, so I was pleased to receive The Plant-Based Solution by Joel Kahn, M.D. from Sounds True Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. As a non-carnivore for 30+ years, I have had some concern about whether or not I am getting enough protein in my diet, how much protein a woman my size actually needs, and whether I really need as much protein as my husband keeps reminding me I do.

I’m kind of a skeptic about books which claim to have “the answer” to every nutritional issue, and I went into the reading of this hoping that the book wasn’t just a load of what I think of as nutribabble—lots of words and advice about how to eat without anything to back it up.

But I was happy to see how well sourced the book is, and how readable it is. There are chapters dealing with heart issues, diabetes, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer, brain function, the immune system, GI and kidney systems, animal ethics, and more…even including sex. Looking at the TOC, I wondered whether this was a mile wide and an inch deep, but he gets into each of these topics including personal stories to increase the “relatability factor.” He’s been vegan, not just vegetarian, for many years, which sometimes can come across as a bit preachy and hard to relate to – but the stories really help here, and Dr. Kahn’s personal story is compelling as well.

The second half is really a handbook that includes a 21-day plan (with recipes) to help people get started. This book will be a good resource for those interested in eating well without meat and who don’t really need or want to wade through scientific literature. Four stars.