Saigon Dark Saigon Dark by Elka Ray

 

Saigon Dark marks the second book I have read by Elka Ray.  I requested and received a digital copy compliments of Crime Wave Press in exchange for an honest review.

Of the two books I much prefer Saigon Dark as Ms. Ray’s talent shines through on every page—it is a well-crafted ferris wheel ride of a read. I devoured the book without hardly ever putting it down.

It is dark and compelling—I was certainly at times hard pressed to feel empathy with the main character, Lily—but I nevertheless hoped she would succeed—even if the woman was completely unable to simply tell the truth. Saigon Dark is a testament to Ms. Ray’s strength as a writer.

Instead, I took inspiration from the wisdoms that Ms. Ray portrayed through her characters—the wisdom that keeping secrets leads to a life filled with deception and paranoia. It builds a secret inner monologue in your brain which if left unchecked completely drives your entire life.

It is like drinking a poison that ensures that your focus is always trapped listening to a paranoid deceptive demon constantly whispering in your ear advising a continued diet of lies, deception, vigilance, paranoia, fear, stress, and anxiety—to succeed at all costs—if you are to protect what you hold dear. In Lily and in Saigon Dark, Ms. Ray creates a dark closed-in world that precisely validates her wisdoms, writing that results in a well constructed novel that is as compelling as it is claustrophobic.

Family (she claims) is the most important thing in Lily’s life and she would do anything to protect it—while reading I would often wonder which was more important to Lily—her family or getting caught.

The unintended consequence of this type of choice— is that in Lily’s desperation to keep her family whole and her secrets secret she gets trapped—often only noticing in retrospect that she had been so caught up listening to mind demons that she was never really there, never really enjoyed those people and moments that she claimed to hold most dear.

Instead, Lily spent the vast majority of her life constantly obsessing over her deceptions, her secrets, and past betrayals. She got so caught up in fears about losing her family that she often completely missed out on the very “happiness” that she was so desperate to protect.

The beginning of this dark tale starts with Lily relating a recurring nightmare which starts as a happy love filled ferris wheel ride and ends in betrayal as she is pushed out of her carriage at the very top of the ride, Ms. Ray utilizes this nightmare as a metaphor for Lily’s life.

We meet Lily at a moment when she is still reeling from being pitched from the top of her metaphoric ferris wheel—abandoned by her first husband, living as a single mother in Saigon, with two small children to raise on her own. She is still reeling from these betrayals and when her self adsorption results in her young daughter’s “accidental” death, Lily hits her nadir and it is in those depths that Lily makes some truly questionable decisions.

Lily’s unfathomable decisions represent a morally ethical quagmire and she reels from Saigon to Thailand where she reinvents her life—once again. I loved how Ms. Ray chose to weave her tale— as readers we are simply dropped chapter by chapter into pivotal moments in Lily’s life—like carriage ride stops on a loading ferris wheel we spend time looking at the view and listening to the corrosive poison of Lily’s current mind demons.

Each moment where Lily seems to have it all —a successful career, a family, a husband, wonderful children—she gets shoved from the top of that metaphoric ferris wheel again. By the end of the book Lily is completely self centered completely adsorbed into her own mind —it is an increasingly claustrophobic world and read.

Once again we see Lily reeling but recovering after another push from the top but with an unexpected ally this go round. A tiny ray of hope to cling to…that she can rise back up.

I think the wisdom is to pick a different amusement park ride instead of constantly expecting different results from the SAME RIDE. Samskara. Villanelle. Insanity. All circular rides.

I suppose Ms. Ray had to end the ride somewhere but I would have happily taken another couple of rounds on this particular ferris wheel. I look forward to reading more of Elka Ray.

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   Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

 

Thank you Gill Hornby, Flatiron Books and NetGalley for gifting me this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published in the US on April 7, 2020.

Gill Hornby treats her readers to a thoughtful reimagining of Jane Austen’s adult life and early demise utilizing the point of view of her older sister, Cassandra—the story also moves back and forth in time, a favorite plotting device for me.

Using brilliantly reimagined correspondence and conversations the story dips into the shared life of Jane and Cassandra and in doing so pays a lovely tribute to sisterhood, friendship and the various choices the women characters in this novel make out of a sense of duty. Duty not only to family but to creative genius as well.

Two decades after Jane’s death this novel finds Cassandra- now in her 60’s— working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Cassandra wants to shape the narrative so that her sister’s life is perceived as forever calm—unruffled by drama and scandal. She feels it is her duty to curate Jane’s good reputation—she seeks to portray Jane’s  life as one of quiet creativity, spent in the sheltering bosom of her happy family.

In 1840, upon learning of the passing of a family friend’s husband, the Reverend Fowle, Cassandra journeys uninvited to the vicarage under pretense of offering her “unasked for” assistance to the Reverend’s youngest daughter—Isabella— as she must now vacate the rectory to make way for the incoming Reverend and his family.

The late wife and mother, Eliza Lloyd Fowle— is portrayed here as having been an intimate confidante of both sisters, particularly Jane. The true purpose of Cassandra’s visit is to gather and collect a cache of correspondence before her sister-in-law Mary can lay claim to these letters and potentially exploit them to the detriment of Jane’s reputation.

This particular rectory also served as family home to her long dead fiancé Tom Fowle and as Cassandra begins to sift through the letters she becomes swamped by memories and overwhelmed by the emotions stirred up by this unexpectedly personal revisiting of the past.

Cassandra’s determination to find Isabella settled before she leaves for home fuels the real-time scenes as she attempts to project the solution that worked best for the Austen sisters on to the Fowle’s—looking to her own past to shape the future for these three unmarried sisters.

Two are spinsters and one a widow and Cassandra instead of seeing the realities in front of her nose—the actual circumstances and genuine wishes of these three sisters—deems it best to impose her own vision for a seemly satisfactory resolution. 

Ms. Hornby’s novel is in part a gentle examination of 19th century spinsters amidst various layers of society and how they individually handle this reality.  As a woman of a certain age, living on her own but dependent on various means of support and income, I love reading about how other women through time handle this circumstance for themselves.

I feel that sharing how things further develop both in the past and at the rectory will come at the expense of supplying spoilers and this is not fair to other readers or to the author. But I cannot resist a little more commentary on the 19th century life of the Austen sisters as I always enjoy learning something new when I am reading.

I had been saving this semi-epistolary NetGalley ARC in my queue for awhile as I was planning a reading “arc” of epistolary novels to ring out 2019.  Lady Susan, Jane Austen’s only foray into this literary plotting style and already on my proposed reading stack is a novella which is widely considered one of her most ambitious and sophisticated early works. A true moment of #TBR serendipity!

I have not read a lot of Jane Austen—I am not a Janeite by any means—I have read Pride & Prejudice which I greatly enjoyed. I have also read a few books that reference Jane Austen and her writings such as “The Jane Austen Book Club”.  I know little about her personal life and absolutely nothing about Cassandra Austen. 

Therefore I decided to just read “Miss Austen” first and then take a deeper look after I finished so I could suss out the history from the fiction. I took the same approach with existing reviews as I didn’t want those to color my own assessments either.

While most people loved it— others had divergent reasons to take fault— some reviewers took umbrage against Ms. Hornby for taking “too many” fictional liberties and chastised her fiction for not being 100% historically accurate— to the polar opposite with other reviewers who opined that Ms. Hornby took “too few” fictional liberties and wished that she had padded the historical scarcity of information regarding Jane’s life with fictional additions of drama, adventure and spice. Go figure.

I read the book at face value as it is billed— historical fiction— a fictionalized account of Jane Austen’s life, one the most famous female authors at the turn of the 19th century, as told by her older sister, Cassandra Austen. I had no preconceived notions about what I would find—my hope is this lack of partiality allows for a review of this novel on its own merit.

I loved the slow pace of “Miss Austen”.  I felt that Gill Hornby employed a writing style that allowed for rich detail and enjoyed the slow unveiling of a character’s depth—a reward for patient readers of such period dramas.

Quintessentially and in my own opinion, “Miss Austen” reads as if penned by Jane, herself, in that there is no edge of the seat action, no deep mysteries, or high flying adventures just the deep study of her characters and their personalities. Particularly— this novel takes a deeper look into how 19th century women made their way through life, especially those driven to the fringe of society, such as spinsters and widows.

Jane Austen is famous for writing books and short stories that often centered on the dependence of women on marriage to provide both favorable social standing and economic security and were written with a biting sense of irony, realism, humor and social commentary.

Ms. Hornby stays true to this course and her writing utilizes all of these elements as she weaves in imagined letters and conversations with what little facts are known about the lives of these two sisters. In reality there are few autobiographies written about Jane Austen excepting those by family members and indeed there is a paucity of information regarding a record of Jane’s life, much less Cassandra’s— but isn’t that true for most all women?

According to Austen scholars Jane may have written as many as 3,000 letters during her life time but only 161 survive. Many of these letters were written to her sister Cassandra who in 1843 burned the greater part of them and cut pieces out of those she kept.

Much of this particular book involves the period of time in which Cassandra destroyed all of Jane’s letters.  Ms. Hornby’s richly imagined letters and remembered conversations begin with Cassandra’s engagement to Tom Fowle, his tragic death, and continue on up and through Mr. Austen’s sudden retirement and the family’s move to Bath, his subsequent death, the unsettled times that followed, life at Chawton, and Jane’s early death.

This much we know is true:

The Austen’s were always a family of modest means but the situation became more tenuous for Cassandra, Jane and their mother after the death of Mr. Austen, with no steady income of their own they became beholden upon the generosity of their brothers(sons) for economic support.

Cassandra supposedly destroyed the letters to protect family members and others from reading Jane’s often acid commentary and forthright speaking. She is presumed to have  destroyed all correspondence that she deemed tactless, unbecoming, or unseemly.

Cassandra is not the only guilty party as going forward successions of  Austen generations expunged and sanitized Jane’s life history and the vast majority is biased in the favor of “good quiet Jane” who lived in a happy domestic situation with family as her mainstay.

It is true that Cassandra destroyed all of Jane’s correspondence between the years of 1801- 1804 which also parallels a time when Jane did very little if any writing. Ms. Hornby mines these hidden truths and imagines a story that points to something different: deep periods of unhappiness, bitterness and disappointments.

In real life Cassandra and Jane were quite inseparable and shared a special bond as sisters and friends. Cassandra spent the majority of her long life both caring for Jane and others as well as preserving the memory of her sister. Cassandra is often viewed as Jane’s prudish stiff older sister but the fact remains that what little we know of Jane comes from Cassandra and those 161 remaining letters.

On a personal note, I am childbirth educator, prenatal yoga instructor and birth doula, so I wanted to take a moment to commend Ms. Hornby for her representations of childbirth during the late 18th and early 19th century England. She wrote them as common matter fact occurrences in a woman’s life, without fuss or drama, Cassandra was at hand so she assisted the depicted births by expediently doing what needed done. Women helping women—a time honored tradition.

How Ms. Hornby masterfully weaves together the known facts regarding Jane and Cassandra Austen with the thoughtful fabrication of quite plausible fictions makes for reading time well spent. I look forward to more of her books.

About the Author:

Gill Hornby is the author of the novels The Hive and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England, with her husband and their four children.

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 Behind Every Lie by Christina McDonald

Thank you Christina McDonald, Gallery Books and NetGalley for gifting me this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published in the US on February 4, 2020.

This adult fiction book is billed as a mystery thriller. Ms. McDonald takes a dramatic look into the domestic human psyche—a study of love, life choices, best intentions, secrets and lies—and it proved to be a lightening bolt of a read. (Sorry I couldn’t resist.)  This is the first book that I have read by Christina McDonald but I am sure to read more now that I have read this one.

Ms. McDonald weaves a tale around a mother and a daughter who are each keeping secrets and the efforts they made to keep them that way. They both have convinced themselves that they are keeping their respective secrets with the purest of best intentions.

Kat and Eva, our mother and daughter, have a complex complicated relationship one that becomes even more emotionally intense when dangerous long held secrets begin to be uncovered.

The author employs one of my favorite plotting styles as the action shifts from present day Seattle as daughter, Eva, desperately searches for answers and the past as mother, Kat, details the life she lived 25 years ago in London with the rich well imagined scenes making you feel as if you are there.

One moment Eva is attending a family dinner party at a restaurant in downtown Seattle to celebrate her mother’s recent award for her dramatic rescue of a young child. The next moment Eva wakes up in a hospital bed, fiancee Liam by her side, but with no memory of how she got there.

Her doctor explains that she was found in the middle of the street after having been struck by lightening and the police detective hovering ominously over her bed tells her that not only has her mother been murdered that she is the main suspect.

Liam bundles her home before the detective can ask too many questions but Eva is understandably in a panic as she searches for her memories and for answers to her mother’s death. Following a clue found in her mother’s house she skips out of town on her own and travels to London hoping to find the answers she needs.

There are mysteries, clues, and red herrings around every corner and this is one of those books where it is hard to write a review without revealing too much of the plot. The mystery and uncertainties both add to the suspense and keep you guessing—this results in fantastic tale of murder, deception, and family from both Eva’s and Kat’s point of view.

So I feel that sharing my opinions about how things further develop will come at the expense of supplying spoilers and this is not fair to other readers or to the author. But I cannot resist a little more commentary on Kintsugi as I always enjoy learning something new when I am reading. 

Eva is a pottery artist. One of her clients sends her a broken piece of pottery and asks if she can repair it—and in her research she stumbles upon the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with a mixture of gold and glue known as Kintsugi.

Wanting to know more and to see examples I took to Wikipedia and this is what I discovered.

Kintsugi is the art of embracing damage, it treats breakage as part of an object’s history and not as something to disguise. In Japan it is both a practice and a philosophy, a way of thinking.

Kintsugi is itself a meld of several philosophies such as  Wabi Sabi,  Mushin, and Zen—all practices that embrace flaws, imperfections, equanimity, and the beauty of broken things.

Over the course of a human existence one inevitably encounters bad breaks, broken hearts, broken promises, and broken dreams an allegory that could not be seen more clearly than in the shattering breaks that ceramic ware often experiences during its existence. 

I am not sure which Ms. McDonald encountered first, the idea for this novel or Kintsugi— but  to my mind she couldn’t have picked a better way to express this concept as it applies to the human psyche of her characters.

Through Eva, Ms. McDonald tells us that Kat had a favorite saying:

We can be strong and brave and broken and whole all at the same time.

While some reviewers quibbled about the bolt of lightening-in my own opinion I found it a perfect literal metaphor for the actual events that shattered Eva’s world.

After all what better way to blow apart and shatter a persons life than with a bolt of lightening right down to those feathery crack-like marks called Lichtenberg Figures that the electricity of the blast leaves on your skin.

A person can continue to look back making the choice to remain shattered or a person can look forward and create a beautiful future— something whole out of the broken pieces.

How Ms. McDonald wields the epoxy and gold dust for all of her various characters makes for valuable reading time well spent. I look forward to going back and reading her previous book, The Night Olivia Fell.

I also wish that I could get back some of the broken pottery and ceramics I have tossed away over the years!

 

  

 Christina McDonald is the USA TODAY bestselling author of The Night Olivia Fell, which has been optioned for television by a major Hollywood studio. She has worked for companies such as USA TODAY, The Sunday Times (Dublin), and Expedia. Originally from Seattle, Washington, she has an MA in Journalism from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and now lives in London, England.

 

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  The Dilemma by B. A. Paris

 

 Thank you B. A. Paris, HQ and NetGalley for gifting me this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published in the US on January 9, 2020.

A couple of words about the digital copy that downloaded to my Kindle from NetGalley as it was a bit of a jumble. There was no title page, just a few pages of reviews, a publishing page and then in the middle of a page the book begins. The bold function often over highlights into portions of the text. The body of the text is often separated out into single sentences. But the most perplexing glitch is that either the title of the book, The Dilemma or the author’s name, B.A. Paris is randomly inserted during paragraphs—often in the middle of sentences. Hopefully all this will be resolved before publishing, my version was readable but these glitches did make for cumbersome annoyances while reading.

This book is billed as general adult fiction. Ms. Paris takes a dramatic look into the domestic human psyche—a study of love, life choices, best intentions, secrets and lies—and it proved to be a “clear all decks” edge of your seat kind of read. This is the first book that I have read by B. A. Paris but I am sure to read more now that I have read this one.

Ms. Paris weaves a tale around a married couple who are each keeping a secret from the other and the efforts made to keep them that way. They both have convinced themselves that they are keeping their respective secret with the purest of best intentions—neither wants to ruin the other’s life and their family—not to mention the party.

The wife, Livia, is turning 40, she became pregnant while an unwed teenager and her ashamed parents disowned Livia and never spoke to her again. She and Adam, the father, subsequently got married after Josh was born— but these life choices totally broke to pieces the type of life that she had imagined leading. One of her biggest regrets was that she never got a “big splashy wedding” the type of which she and her mother had spent hours dreaming of and planning for—some future day.

Livia decides, promises herself, and plans for years in advance to give herself an over the top 40th birthday party instead. While Livia and Adam may have had a quick forced wedding they also had a love that endured, and their relationship grew with them as they matured.

Adam was also forced to make hard choices when the reality of life circumstance stood in front of his dreams, he gave up university and took up a trade. It took Adam a while to grow up and he still has lingering regrets about the road not taken. He only came fully to terms with the realities of fatherhood after the birth of his second child— daughter, Marnie,  which has often led to a prickly relationship with his first born son, Josh.

Josh, now a University student, is about to take an internship in America at a prestigious IT firm. Marnie, is also at University and at present is away studying in Hong Kong. Livia and Adam are facing an empty nest for the first time in their marriage.

We quickly find out that Livia is sitting on a secret about their daughter, Marnie. She hasn’t told Adam because she wants to talk to her daughter first and on some level it is not her secret to tell.

All we know at the beginning is that this revelation would destroy Adam, her family, and wreck the party. She is secretly relieved when Marnie tells her she can’t make the party and decides to solve her “dilemma” by waiting to tell Adam after the party.

Of course, Adam, realizing how much this party means to Livia, secretly arranges for Marnie to come home and surprise her mom at the party.

The story takes place over a slightly extended 24 hour timeline on the day of the party and told in a manner that allows for flashbacks and backstory. The story is told in alternating chapters between Livia and Adam. Ms. Paris also gives good denouement, the “after party”, which is an element of novels that I always appreciate.

While Adam is in town picking up his gift for Livia he hears some news that presents him with a potentially devastating secret about Marnie. But because he does not know all the facts Adam also decides to solve his “dilemma” by not telling Livia the news until after the party. Telling could mean the end of the family as they know it and he desperately seeks to give his wife this special night that she has dreamed of for so long.

I feel that sharing my opinions about how things further develop might come at the expense of supplying spoilers and this is not fair to other readers or the author. But I cannot resist a little more commentary on humanity, secrets, and lying.

This book on the surface is about secrets and lies, it is also about families, and friendships, but on a deeper level Ms. Paris is exploring elements of love and the lengths a person might go to keep a loved one from learning harmful truths.

I believe that it is an universal truth that the majority of humans will state that they always prefer to know the truth and that they do not liked to be lied to about anything. I further believe that the majority of these same humans will make the opposite decision when faced with the necessity of telling a damaging truth to a loved one, deciding to withhold the truth—until it can be told with kindness at a better time, or not at all— in order to protect this person.

Sometimes this done out of love, sometimes out of self interest, or more likely, as we see here —a combination of both.  I find this contradictory dichotomy in the human brain to be fascinating and the geek science girl that lurks beneath my surface wonders what kind of brain chemistry accounts for this quirkiness.

The notion that while I am capable of knowing this truth I think it is best not to tell *whoever* as this person can’t handle the truth and needs protected does seem a little condescending and patronizing. It deserves noting that both Adam and Livia, to their credit, fully intend to come clean with their other half but both decide to wait before breaking the news— not out of malicious intent but out of perceived kindness.

It is also worth noting that their respective decisions were not always completely altruistic as both held elements of denial as well, that longing to live a little bit longer in the imagined reality of their clueless loved ones.

Part of the “fun” of this book is how the author engages your mind as she fills up with your thoughts with decisions and judgments about how all the various characters handle their various choices surrounding these dilemmas.

For my own part, I can wrap my head around the mind set of Livia and Adam as they decided to keep their dilemma about Marnie secret from each other, but as I imagine being the spouse on the “receiving end” of the news I realized that I would be hard pressed to forgive some decisions not to tell.

How Ms. Paris resolves The Dilemma for all her various characters makes for valuable reading time well spent. I will definitely be reading her previous books.

About this Author:

B A Paris is the internationally bestselling author of Behind Closed Doors, The Breakdown and Bring Me Back. Having sold over one million copies in the UK alone, she is a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller as well as a number one bestseller on Amazon and iBooks. Her books have sold in 38 territories around the world. Having lived in France for many years, she recently moved back to the UK.

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 Unfollow Me: A Novel by Charlotte Duckworth

 

Thank you Charlotte Duckworth, Crooked Lane Press and NetGalley for gifting me this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published in the US on March 10, 2020.

This book is billed as a domestic thriller and does not disappoint.  Ms. Duckworth lifts the curtains and peers beneath the glittery posts of influencer, Violet Young—to look at the gray underbelly of social media— IRL style.

Violet is a vlogger with millions of followers—she is all over social media with accounts on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and FaceBook—all this media attention has drawn commercial sponsorship, as well.

She is the young mother to three girls, the wife of Henry-a bit of a social media influencer himself and her immensely popular vlog “Violet is Blue” is the video portrayal of her personal and family life.

It began innocently enough as a way to help herself and other mums suffering through Postpartum Depression but as she grew in popularity it morphed into a business filled with free gifts, sponsorship and not so “real” content. More often than not, this was coming at the expense of privacy, her children, and her marriage.

Then one morning without any advance warning all of Violet Young’s accounts disappear and are shut down much to the dismay of her millions of followers who feel abandoned and betrayed.

The subsequent story revolves around several individual threads:

  • a set of trolling threatening emails sent to Violet
  • a forum (a set of followers who post comments about Violet’s vlog)
  • Lily, an avid obsessed follower who presents herself as a widowed single mother
  • Yvonne, a recently married follower in her late 30’s desperate to conceive a child
  • and starting about halfway through Henry, Violet’s husband also chimes in.

These “separate”  stories are told through alternating chapters and Ms. Duckworth slowly begins to cleverly knit together these seemingly disparate threads.

While Violet is the centerpiece her voice is absent and her whereabouts remain a mystery.  The result is a slowly evolving story that certainly kept me both guessing and swiping through pages.

I enjoyed the complexity of her characters ranging from “good” bad people to behavior from the seemingly good characters that had me giving them a bit of the side eye.  I dabble at social media and am not a fan of personality based “reality” shows—my tastes run more towards cooking, real estate and Project Runway type reality shows.

However, I can appreciate the concepts/characters that the author is seeking to portray and her writing makes it all seem very real.  I can certainly relate to the obsessional stalker-like tendencies that are often brought to the forefront during human relationships both real and imagined.

I feel that sharing my opinions about how things further develop might come at the expense of supplying spoilers and this is not fair to other readers or the author. But I do have one more thought about a deeper theme.

In her book, Ms. Duckworth has one of her characters say: “Being angry is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Human life is increasingly based on imaginary concepts be it money, time, laws, rights, or social media and the human belief that we are entitled to all of this and more grows stronger each imagined day.

It is very easy to look out and find hate, there is no need to teach you how to suffer or how to inflict pain. It is very easy to lay blame and to expect others to ease your pain— allowing them to shoulder responsibility for what’s wrong in your life. 

It is very easy to feel that you deserve more, that it is your right to have what others have, thatit is their fault that you do not. You didn’t ask for this and you certainly don’t deserve it —but that’s not your fault — that when it comes to getting the things you deserve the end justifies the means.

Some humans drink this poison as part of their everyday life and some humans settle in to enjoy reading about their travails.

How Ms. Duckworth resolves this for all her various characters makes for valuable reading time well spent. I will definitely be reading her previous book, The Rival.

Charlotte Duckworth has spent the past fifteen years working as an interiors and lifestyle journalist, writing for a wide range of consumer magazines and websites. She lives in Surrey with her partner and their young daughter.

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Brand New Friend

I found the author Kate Vane via Twitter, we follow each other, and recently I read a book review she posted on her website. I liked her review as it was honest without being hurtful. So I decided to read her latest book.

Rating systems do not allow for partial stars so I am giving this book 4 stars, although in reality I would rate it in the range of 3.5-3.8. In other words somewhere between “I liked it and I really liked it”. I am comfortable leaving my rating at 4 based on the writing strength and the keen ability of Ms. Vane to draw characters and to set scenes.

I found the promo blurbs to be a little misleading so I am creating my own— because this book is different from what you are led to believe—I am not alone in this comment.

For the record, I thought it was going to be a crime mystery wherein a journalist for the BBC, would unravel the “who-done-it” before or by working with the police. And it is sort of…but this book refuses to pigeon-hole itself into one genre and I like that as it makes for a more interesting read. I am also a fan of books that flip through time with alternating storylines involving the past and the present.

Paolo, her main character, is a somewhat disaffected foreign correspondent who finds himself working as a home-based journalist for the BBC serving as a “couch sitter” on various news shows. His career has diminished due to some life altering events surrounding Salma, his Egyptian wife, a fellow journalist, and their children.

Salma, was forced to flee the Middle East in the midst of the Tahrir Square incident, but once her own family was safe, she worked tirelessly to free the colleagues she left behind. Her efforts were ultimately successful but took their toll, after which she felt the need to disappear into the oblivion of “normal” life. Paolo, understanding the need, made the necessary career sacrifices to help his wife and family heal. 

All well and good, but Paolo was having troubling transitioning from his former identity as a headline generating Middle Eastern correspondent to his current role as a well-heeled suburban family man living in Suffolk. He was at a bit of loose ends and more than a little worried about the state of his marriage.

All this ennui changes when Paolo gets a phone call from Mark Benson, a man he knew during his university days, thirty some years ago, when they were fellow members of the same animal rights activist group and hadn’t heard from since…

It turns out that instead of just being a fellow activist Mark was an uncover cop working to infiltrate an extremist organization and was now on the brink of being outed via national press coverage. Seems like old news— but Paolo was curious enough that he made the trip back to Leeds. It was during their first sit down that Mark gets a phone call regarding a dead body found in the City Garden that he manages.

This body turns out to be Sid, Mark’s old handler during his undercover days, a fact that is not divulged to the police. Mark disappears and Paolo decides to continue investigating, and from there the story emerges.

There is no black and white in this book as it is more of a character study than anything else…lots of varying shades of gray.

The story is told through alternating flashbacks and the present day as Paolo soon realizes that the key to figuring out this crime comes from revisiting his own past and the surrounding incidents that involved their tiny activist group, his fellow house mates and Mark—their Brand New Friend.

Ms. Vane is an English author and I am an American reader so at first I had a little trouble puzzling out the colloquialisms and cadence of the speech patterns of her characters. Once I got up to speed I was golden. Although I still question: wall muriel instead of wall mural.

I think that Ms. Vane did an excellent job with the ’80’s flashbacks as the activist scene—flat mates— University parts of the book were extremely well written.  Fewer people to keep track of back then was a bonus but I mostly enjoyed it because she fleshed this set of characters out in ways that all of us former ’80’s college students can relate, even though, in the US, I had a completely different play list.  I particularly enjoyed reading the chapters where Paolo contacts all of his old roommates and the “where are they now” stories.

However, the chapters that are set in the present day feature an additional abundance of minor characters and side stories and I personally had difficulty remembering who was who and their part in various plot lines—especially as things were seldom exactly what they seemed.  I was further impeded by the fact that I was only able to read in a short burst/ long pause fashion. I kept forgetting who was who and who did what, where they fit in, and how did they figure that out…

Kindle reading does not make for easy going back and checking so when my brain let me down on some of these connections I simply accepted the given explanations and did’t try to back fact check. I’m still not sure I got everything right or understand some finer details. But no spoilers.

No regrets on time spent reading this book and would read more of Kate Vane.

About Kate Vane:

Kate worked as a probation officer in Leeds for a number of years. She started writing crime fiction because she thought made-up criminals would be easier to manage (Kate was wrong).

Kate has published four novels. She has written for BBC drama Doctors and her short stories and articles have appeared in various publications and anthologies, including Mslexia and Scotland on Sunday.

Kate always loved the sea, and now live on the beautiful south Devon coast. If she's not reading or writing, she's probably in the garden.

For the latest on her writing, go to katevane.com where you can sign up for her newsletter.

 

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 Entanglement by Andrew J. Thomas

Entanglement is a warm quirky read that lifts entanglement theory out of quantum physics and says what if??? Mr. Thomas constructs a wonderfully entangled story that contains just the right amount of facts that leaves one wondering if this tale is in fact within the plane of possibility. The “actual” plane of possibility exists within the world of quantum physics and there at least theoretically everything is possible.

What the Amazon Blurb says:

Entanglement is a quirky mystery with a sci-fi twist that’s influenced by the humor of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman.David’s fiancée worries when he drops out of contact. MI5 panics when a secret airbase vanishes. Liz doesn’t understand when her research subjects go missing. Nigel is confused when he finds an ordinary house brick floating in thin air. And a woman spends her life shifting between parallel worlds. But how can all these things be connected? And why are cakes so important?
Five friends, four mysteries, three deaths, two road trips and a secret that will change the world ... Entanglement is a warm, funny, and original tale about friendship, loss and coping when you’re out of your depth. It also invites readers to ask, “What if?” What if you hadn’t answered that voicemail? And what if grass that never needs cutting wasn't being kept secret by the lawnmower companies?

My Thoughts:

I am a fan of time traveling books, the fact that two exist on my tiny “forever” shelf would have given you a clue. Add a little bit of physics and science—this book hooks me even more.

I love authors with a dry, sly, sarcastic sense of humor with a gift of a good turn of phrase. Such as when Mr. Thomas tells us that TC learned to play the piano and at best one could describe her playing as accurate—or when he describes the sky as not having quite enough energy to commit to blue.

I love all the footnotes, the cake, and the recipes. However, I can only attribute the following to the author’s evil dry sense of humor but the recipe for Lemon Drizzle Cake instructs one to use 1-1/2 eggs. I won't rant but this type of nonsense is a personal baking pet peeve.

A missing underground military base, a transported colony of moles, a floating brick and the engaging group of people trying to figure all this out on all of the various fronts quickly entangle themselves together in an increasingly page turning (finger swiping) manner.

A tale that is told in the 3rd person. The author is the disembodied narrator for all of these characters (including the moles) as he takes us through their various doings and what happens to them along the way.

We are treated to a bird’s eye view as Mr. Thomas often gives the readers insight that his characters aren’t privy to, but he also lets us peak into his main character’s thoughts and feelings about what’s going on.

Then there is TC, seemingly out in left field, whose story is told as a parallel to the above tale. She is a cake loving girl who finds herself accidentally traveling between parallel worlds. How the author melds this altogether is one of the true delights of this book.

I cannot wait until Transference (2nd book) hits the shelves.

I seldom give a book 5 stars but this one truly deserves all of the stars, it is reading time very well spent.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing a digital copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

About the Author:

Andrew J Thomas was born in Bristol, England and after writing as a hobby all his life, became a published novelist with 'Entanglement'. He's inspired by Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. His work is quirkily funny, with characters you'd enjoy a drink with, and events just strange enough to be believable. He started writing 'Entanglement' in March 2018, shared the first version with friends that October, with professional editors four months later and completed it in August 2019. During that time though, his mother had a major stroke, and his focus expanded to include giving her a copy while there was still time. Happily, he succeeded. He's written two other novels and seventeen short stories (as yet unpublished) and lives in a thatched cottage in rural Worcestershire.

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I received an advanced digital copy of White Elephant by Trish Harnetiaux compliments of the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. This novel will be published October 29. 2019.

Amazon Book Blurb says:

A crackling Christmas mystery that combines murder and blackmail at a holiday office party, in a mashup reminiscent of Big Little Lies and Clue.

There are only a few rules in a White Elephant gift exchange: 1) Everyone brings a wrapped, unmarked gift. 2) Numbers are drawn to decide who picks first. 3) Gifts don’t need to be pricey—and often they’re downright tacky.

But things are a little different in Aspen, Colorado, at the office holiday party for the real estate firm owned by Henry Calhoun and his wife Claudine. Each Christmas sparks a contest among the already competitive staff to see who can buy the most coveted gift: the one that will get stolen the most times, the one that will prove just how many more commissions they earned that year than their colleagues. Designer sunglasses, deluxe spa treatments, front row concert tickets—nothing is off the table. And the staff is even more competitive this year as Zara, the hottest young pop star out of Hollywood, is in town and Claudine is determined to sell her the getaway home of her dreams.

Everyone is puzzled when a strange gift shows up in the mix: an antique cowboy statue. At least the sales agents are guessing it’s an antique—otherwise it’d be a terrible present. It’s certainly not very pretty or expensive-looking. In fact, the gift makes sense only to Henry and Claudine. The statue is the weapon Henry used to commit a murder years ago, a murder that helped start his company and a murder that Claudine helped cover up. She swore that no one would ever be able to find the statue or trace it to their crime. So which of their employees did? And why did they place it in the White Elephant? What could possibly be their endgame?

Over the course of the evening, Henry and Claudine race to figure out who could have planted the weapon, and just what the night means for the secrets they’ve been harboring. Further adding to the drama is a snowstorm that closes nearby roads—preventing anyone from leaving, as well as keeping law enforcement from the scene. And by the end of this crazy night, the police will most definitely be required…

What I Say:

The idea of the office party/ White Elephant Holiday gift exchange drew me in as my family has one every Christmas. We use slightly different rules however and certainly none of our gifts are as fabulous, mysterious, and deadly as the ones offered at this party— while it is true ours may include some drama they are nothing like this one!

I did catch a “Big Little Lies” vibe as at times it felt like some of the characters were giving interviews about the events at the party after the fact, especially pop star, Zara. I also was intrigued by the real estate angle as a guilty watching pleasure of mine is Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Listing LA. The show’s featured brokers often have celebrity clients and while they pursue clients and property with ruthless abandon I hope none of them have stooped to murder. No doubt Bravo will catch it on tape for us if they do.

What really sealed “the deal” for me was the side story of the performer, Andy Williams, and the real-life murder mystery surrounding his ex-wife Claudine Longet. Andy Williams was a favorite of my parents and I grew up listening to his music and watching him on TV. I imagine I even saw Claudine at some point. I had no idea of this real life intrigue. I was as curious as Zara and did my own fact checking.

The book certainly kept me turning pages. I enjoyed being able to look at the plot through the eyes of various characters. We hear the story from the point of view of Claudine, Henry, Zara, and the mysterious deathbed letters left by the girl friend of one of the murder victims to their love child. I don’t want to give any spoilers but the letters and the mystery gift certainly point out that at least one of the characters have come to the party with a not so innocent intent. The author plants several credible red herrings surrounding the mysterious White Elephant gift.

I also enjoyed how the author cleverly juxtaposed the present day events with the back story and flashbacks of her various main characters as this kept the suspense at a nice simmer througout. I enjoyed how the snowstorm was almost a character in itself.

Through the clues that the author dropped I was able to solve a few mysteries for myself but happily not all— which made for a very enjoyable read. I love books that provide after stories for their characters and this one did not disappoint. I would have appreciated having a better understanding of why the business of Calhoun + Calhoun was failing, we are just told that it is, with no real explanation.

Over all I enjoyed the time reading about real estate high jinx in Aspen, Colorado and consider it valuable reading time well spent. I would definitely recommend reading.

There is only one element of this story that I didn’t really “buy”.

Claudine Calhoun is portrayed as a fashion savvy, driven, ruthless, Type A, obsessive, narcissistic woman.  There is just absolutely no way a woman like Claudine Calhoun would commit such a basic fashion faux pas. Claudine would never select a pair of “Leopard print calf hair Manolos” to wear with “a tiger print Cavalli coat” as part of her Holiday party ensemble.

The standing rule in fashion regarding animal print is that it is used primarily for emphasis and the RULE is one animal print per outfit and preferably only one piece in the given outfit. If Claudine was a real person she would be appalled at this fashion gaffe as there is nothing more humiliating than a public fashion faux pas.

About the author:

Trish Harnetiaux is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her plays How to Get into BuildingsWelcome to the White Room, and If You Can Get to Buffalo have been published by Samuel French. Her latest play Tin Cat Shoes premiered at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks and she is currently developing Bender and Brian, an epic tale of subversive Breakfast Club FanFiction. Harnetiaux has been a resident at MacDowell, The Millay Colony and Yaddo. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and her work can be found at TrishHarnetiaux.com.

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Divorce Is Murder: A Toby Wong Novel (Toby Wong: Vancouver Island Mystery) By Elka Ray  

 Elka Ray's latest book is a gripping mystery set in Victoria, British Columbia, a tale that combines romance and murder.

Publisher: Seventh Street Books (Simon & Schuster)  Publication Date: August 20, 2019

My thanks to the author and to Henry Roi of Crime Wave Press who sent me a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

The book blurb states:

As teens, they bullied her. Twenty years on, she's not scared of them. Except she should be. After returning to her quiet hometown to care for her ailing mom, divorce lawyer Toby Wong is hired by Josh Barton, a guy who broke her heart as a teen at summer camp. Now a wealthy entrepreneur, Josh wants to divorce Tonya, the mean girl who tormented Toby all those years ago.

When Tonya is found murdered, Josh is the prime suspect. Together with her fortune-teller mom and her pregnant best friend, Toby sets out to clear Josh, whom she still has a guilty crush on. As she delves deeper into Tonya's murder, Toby keeps running into catty ex-campers she'd rather forget.

Are her old insecurities making her paranoid? Only too late does she realize she's in danger. The first entry in an addictive new series, Divorce is Murder introduces fans of mystery and romance to an irresistibly smart and sarcastic new heroine - Chinese Canadian divorce lawyer Toby Wong. 

 

Here are my thoughts:

After receiving my copy—full disclosure this is my first such review— I was understandably nervous. Wondering what if I didn’t like the writing or the story etc.  My plan was to read a couple of chapters before I committed—to see if I was going to be “in to it”.

Before I knew it hours had past— my to do list forgotten and mostly undone. The story kept me up late that night and right back into it the next morning. I finished it by early afternoon.

“Divorce is Murder” is an addictive page turner (finger swiper)  that is full of plot twists and turns.  A story that is equal parts romance, millennial, murder mystery and psychological thriller—it is short (barely over 200 pages) and reads fast.

Right book, right time. It provided just the type of read that my brain was longing for—a bit of escapism away from more serious heavy non-fiction professional reading that has recently filled my valuable reading time.

Don’t get me wrong I can find entertainment in all types of reading material but for the most part I also expect it to educate and challenge me.

But every once in awhile you need a read that wipes the slate clean, so to speak. I call these books palate cleansers—pure pleasures that leave a good taste in your mouth.

I used to spend many enjoyable reading hours snuggled in with the cosy mysteries of Diane Mott Davidson, Lillian Braun Jackson, and Mary Daheim.  Elka Ray fits right in to this mix. This is a genre that has been missing in my reading life of late. I hope indeed that Ms. Ray spends more time with Toby as I definitely would read more.

I do have a couple of remarks:

I imagine writing a short length novel comes with some necessary constraint—such writing does not leave a lot of room for expansive character development or deeper storylines. The author must provide just enough detail to color in the lines of her characters and locations— to provide a sense of personality, give a visual and to set the scene.

I personally found character development in this book to be a little lacking and at times certain characters are more like cardboard cut outs. The author provides just enough detail to keep the various plot lines a float but mostly relies on juxtaposing action scenes for forward momentum.

What I am expressing-- very poorly I imagine— is that my remark is not meant as a negative it is instead intended to simply mean that I wanted more— not just the bare bones. I loved her characters, the storyline and always found myself wanting more backstory, more detail, more interaction.  I found Toby to be very engaging but struggled with the little we learn of Josh, Ivy and many others. These bare threads left me at times a little confused. I wanted more depth and a better understanding.

For example: One chapter Josh is a multimillion dollar IT guy who in the next chapter is now making a living running a charter boat and the next doing IT consulting at his old company? Ivy’s cancer story is also very vague not to mention that Toby spends very little time with her mom during this story so one would hope that she is at the very least in remission… Nor do I buy all of the plotting devices--especially when it comes to lawyers going on dates with clients.

Several Personal Pet Peeves that irritated but did not take away from my enjoyment of this novel.

 Grievance One: 

I am a Yoga teacher and I was dismayed to find the author resorting to tired old social media portrayals of those of us who practice Yoga. Ivy was portrayed as nothing more than the often ridiculed cliched characterization...to quote the author. "The way some traumatized people find God, my mom found New Age mumbo jumbo, Yoga and astrology were her entry drugs...gypsy clothing and crystals...chanting and chakra balancing...a never ending embarrassment. 

Just for once it would be a welcome relief to see a Yogi characterized as a person that used this ancient practice as it is intended.  A traumatized person who through their practice found a strength of mind that enabled them to find a firm footing and a self-reliant life.

The science of Yoga does not promise to remove pain, it promises to help a person see things as they really are, quiet the mind, and removing suffering.

That being said I have ended relationships with teachers after they told of spirit journeys in which they met their family of spiritual guides and animals. I am not a huge fan of woo-woo spiritualism. I side with Toby on that point.

There is perhaps redemption in books to come as I was often left with the impression that the author was moving towards Toby becoming more of a believer than she wanted to admit, especially after events that occurred later in the book.

Grievance Two: 

I teach Pre-Natal Yoga, childbirth education and I am a Birth Doula. I believe that adding a very pregnant woman in a beginning chapter is akin to adding a gun to the first scene. Someone will shoot said gun before the story ends and the woman will go into labor before the book ends.

I was very apprehensive. I am a person known to stand up and yell at my TV set when faced with the outright ridiculous portrayal of birth on television, in movies, and on the internet. I would do a disservice to my profession if I do not say my piece. I only hope the author is as much into science as she claims.

I was extraordinarily pleased that the actual birth took place "off page" as this kept my disgruntlement to a minimum. I have absolutely no sense of humor in this regard.

Authors are allowed to let their fictional characters believe what ever they will and historians are stuck with whatever their subjects actually believed.  BUT the truth of the matter is that the “birth industry” is a total mess at the moment. It would be nice to see childbirth portrayed accurately --particularly by women. Women need to stand together right now and say truth.

 Near the end of the novel, Quinn is having Braxton Hicks contractions which are explained as false practice contractions. 100% not true. Early contractions such as B-H are responsible for moving the cervix, the uterus and the baby into position, they are also work with various hormones to ripen, soften, thin, and dilate the cervix. They are 100% not false. Certainly use their presence to practice various labor pain management tools. They are real. 

Speaking truth removes ignorance which removes fear which removes suffering which eases pain. 

After witnessing Quinn's B-H contraction, Toby opines that birth is one of nature’s cruel jokes especially on women.

I hang my head and cry. The Patriarchy truly has won if women continue to promote false knowledge about our bodies and birth.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ELKA RAY 

Elka Ray writes fast-paced romantic mysteries and scary thrillers - a dichotomy that reveals her belief in Yin and Yang, or the balance of opposites. A great lover of scientific facts, she may be found clutching crystals for good luck; reads highbrow journals and tabloid trash; and refuses to watch rom-coms yet moved in with her now-husband on their first date.

Elka is the author of three novels – the romantic mysteries DIVORCE IS MURDER and HANOI JANE – and the noir thriller SAIGON DARK. She also has a collection of short crime and ghost stories set in Southeast Asia – WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW.

Elka lives with her family near Hoi An, Vietnam.

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Benedict J Jones is a writer of crime, horror and western fiction from south east London. His work has appeared in magazines such as One Eye Grey, Pen Pusher, Out of the Gutter and Encounters, on a variety of websites including Big Pulp and Shotgun Honey and in anthologies from Dark Minds Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Full Dark City Press and Dog Horn Publishing. He has had more than twenty-five stories published since he first saw print, in 2008.

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.