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Fiction Books – Four Stars – Recommended

If you click on a cover and make any purchase from Amazon in the same session, I receive a small commission. It’s a way for you to support my reviews (if you like them).

****
The Accident – Chris Pavone – 2014. New York: Broadway Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Mozhan Marno

The book deserves a better title, something like The Cursed Book or Read It and Weep. An anonymous manuscript is delivered to a literary agent, setting in motion a chain of events resulting in a string of deaths like you’ve never seen before. The book centers on a night when two Cornell students and a drunk coed get lost and head north from Ithaca around the lake (amazingly, I had just been in that location myself a week before). The story is told from multiple perspectives and flashes forward and back in time, which could defeat a lesser writer, but we are in good hands. Although I felt the story got wrapped up in a too-pat way and some of the writing was show-offy, guessing what was going to happen and who was who was lots of fun. Update: somehow over time, I have developed a bad attitude toward this book. When I think back on it now, it seems contrived and even dumb. So you’ll have to read it and decide.

****
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr 2014. New York: Scribner

Inventive story of a blind girl who escapes the Nazi purge in Paris by moving to the coast with her father, a locksmith from the Museum of Natural History, who carves scale-models of city streets to help his daughter find her way. A parallel story concerns a German orphan who is making his way through the nasty military camps thanks to his ability to build and repair radios. The two children will meet at a key plot point. As is the standard these days, the story is told back and forth in time and side to side by different narrators which, for me, made the story lose its momentum fairly frequently. Rich in imagination and detail, it is considered a masterpiece of literary fiction.

****
Broken Harbor (Dublin Murder Squad #4) – Tana French – 2012. New York: Penguin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Stephen Hogan

This time the Dublin Murder Squad veteran Scorcher teams up with a rookie to investigate the murder of a family in a ghost estate following the housing bust. Extremely well-written, this story of the unraveling of a young couple’s dreams really got under my skin. The descriptions of the kids’ murders kept making me cry at the gym even while Scorcher was ranting at his partner that empathy is catastrophic for a homicide detective. French continues to solidify her reputation as a giant in the literary crime genre, but I think I need to take a break for something more light-hearted. It doesn’t seem quite fair to complain that a book about murder is kind of a downer, right?

****
Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1) – Kate Atkinson – 2004. New York: Little, Brown and Company. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Susan Jameson

Interesting interwoven stories starring a cynical but kind-hearted dick who finally connects all the dots, especially a memorable one about a scandalous family secret. Was made into an intriguing television series.

 

****
Curious Minds – Janet Evanovitch and Phoef Sutton – 2017. New York: Bantam Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Lorelei King

An eccentric millionaire teams up with an ambitious young banker to figure out what’s happening to the world’s gold supply. Lots of fun dialog, a multitude of outrageous characters, and a busy plot keep things moving in this laugh-out-loud story.

****
Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos – 2013. Square Fish Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by the author

Such an enjoyable book! Young Jack is looking forward to a summer of baseball and fun when he accidentally shoots off his father’s Japanese sniper rifle and is grounded for life. Only his neighbor Mrs. Volker (a character and a half) and his friend Bunny can intervene to save him from the constant drudgery of digging a bomb shelter in his backyard. And his romantic nemesis, Mr. Spits, keeps making his life even worse. It’s not until bodies start piling up that you realize this story actually has a plot, but you’ve been having so much fun till then, who cares. It turns out that the book is surprisingly autobiographical, which is alarming.

****
Deadline (Virgil Flowers #8) – John Sandford – 2014. New York: Berkley. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Eric Conger

Very enjoyable story about a state cop who is investigating some dog-napping when he gets pulled into an embezzlement scandal involving a local reporter and a school board in small-town Minnesota. Virgil Flowers, his pal Johnson Johnson, and the many characters who walk on are fun to listen to and entertaining. The plot line seemed to wander, and the reader has a lot to keep track of, but the dialogue and the narrator were appealing.

****
Descent – Tim Johnson – 2015. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Xe Sands and R.C. Bray

An 18-year-old goes missing in a mountain town while out for a morning run. Over the ensuing years, her mother, father, and brother struggle to cope with her disappearance. The characters are memorable and well-developed and the story is quite fascinating, but the girl’s plight is so sad that the book is a painful read.

****
Ill Will – Dan Chaon – 2017. New York: Ballantine Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Ari Fliakos et al

A complicated story about a middle-aged psychologist, with only a tangential relationship with reality, whose memories of the murder of his parents are stirred when his adopted brother is released from prison following his exoneration of the crime. Meanwhile, one of his patients, a cop on leave, draws him into his conspiracy theory about a series of death of male college students. Throw in his two sons and several cousins, and you have a positive stew of dysfunction. It’s a difficult book to read and follow, told from multiple points of view and various points in time (apparently the print formatting is a mess), but the narrators did an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. The boy’s older adopted brother is wonderfully portrayed, from his teenage years to his post-surfer bro self. His final monologue about the futility of life I won’t forget for a long time. Also the teenage son of the protagonist has a strong memorable voice. The retelling of the story from multiple unreliable narrators may try your patience, but I think it’s worth hanging in there. The ending is harrowing and ambiguous, so beware.

 

****
In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1) – Tana French – 2007. New York: Penguin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Steven Crossley

Another winner in the Dublin Murder Squad series, this one tells the story of Cassie and Rob working on the terrible murder of a young teen with mysterious connections to the unsolved disappearance of two children from Rob’s past. The interaction between the two detectives are incredibly fun until things go horribly pear-shaped for maybe not a very good reason. I really admire French’s tenacity in writing realistic who-dun-its, but it does mean that there is little satisfaction in the reveal, often depressing. Although this was French’s first, I wouldn’t recommend reading it as first in the series (I’d start with The Likeness). That said, French is clearly the queen of Irish literary crime fiction! Why was I not surprised to learn that she trained as an actress; her characters are so well-defined, I could recognize them on the street.

****
I’ve Got Your Number – Sophie Kinsella – 2012. New York: Dial Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Jayne Entwistle

I enjoyed this story of feckless Poppy immensely and found myself busting out laughing more than once. The plot sounds ridiculous—a young physio on the brink of getting married loses both her engagement ring and her phone and finds herself sucked into working as an ad-hoc PA for a humorless consultant, an arrangement that drives both of them to distraction and me to great merriment. But the plot points are pulled together, the writing is crisp, and the characters strong and memorable.

****
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte – 1847. New York: Harper & Bros. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Wanda McCaddon

This classic fictional memoir has all the hallmarks of a really satisfying romance: vivid settings in the 19th century English countryside, rich and exotic language, an innocent and good-hearted protagonist put in harm’s way time after time, a complex and moody love interest, and a madwoman in the attic. Wonderful narration by Wanda McCaddon. I took off one star because I really don’t think you should sleep with your boss 🙂

****
The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri – 2013. New York: Vintage

Complicated overlapping story (someday I hope we will tire of the multi-narrator phase that has insinuated itself in every genre) of an Indian family whose fortunes are gradually undone by economic and political changes following WWII. The writing is dreamy, and I was heavily touched by the family rituals. Even though you know it’s coming, the ending is shockingly sad.

 

****
Make Me (Jack Reacher #20) – Lee Child – 2015. New York: Dell. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dick Hill

Jack Reacher is ex-military police, skilled, and big, and curious, just an all-round reasonable guy, trying to get by in this world. Somehow the world never lets him do that, so time after time, he has to intervene, usually in ways that involve bad people getting hurt. Badly. He’s also funny in a monosyllabic kind of way, with a soft spot for women who drive well. As a loner, he is comfortable with, if not particularly interested in, the vagaries of human nature. He is even more comfortable with the eruption of violence between humans, especially when it’s up close and personal. This time, he’s curious about what’s going on in a town called Mother’s Rest, where some guys seem to be hauling in a lot of money for being simple wheat and hog farmers. He figures that part out, but he never does figure out why it’s called Mother’s Rest.

****
One Plus One – Jojo Moyes – 2014. New York: Penguin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Elizabeth Bower et al

Heartwarming story of a single hard-working mother who deserves to find happiness, but, first, everything must go horribly wrong.

****
Only Time Will Tell (Clifton Chronicles #1) – Jeffrey Archer – 2011. London: Macmillan. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Roger Allam and Emilia Fox

The first in the Clifton chronicles which are planned as a five-book series. Archer is a classic storyteller, and it’s a pleasure to hear him wield his craft even if the characters are a bit contrived. This one is another sweeping tale of good versus evil, poor versus rich, and integrity versus class. That’s not to say that it’s not compelling and that the reader gets appropriately engrossed and enraged and satisfied in all the right places—it’s just that you might feel better later if you didn’t feel so used. Here we have the young admirable Harry who loves his hard-working saintly mother and is protected and guided by two wise father-substitutes only to begin to understand the dastardliness of his ultimate nemesis, his maybe father.

****
Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf – 2015. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Mark Bramhall

Endearing story of two level-headed septuagenarians who decide to give romance, or at least companionship, one last try. Mercifully not maudlin, not stupid, with a few flashes of zestful joy. This novel was published posthumously, after Haruf died at age 71. The rumor is this will be made into a movie, which I dread.

****
Playing for Pizza – John Grisham – 2007. New York: Doubleday. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Christopher Evan Welch

This one may have benefited from low expectations as I didn’t anticipate particularly enjoying a story about an aging, injured pro-football player who goes to play for the Mighty Panthers in Parma, Italy. But the descriptions of the food, the city, the people, the football fans, parking, and the opera were wonderful, and Rick Dockery’s character development was a real pleasure.

****
Prisoner of Birth – Jeffrey Archer – 2008. London: Macmillan. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Roger Allam

High quality old-fashioned retelling of the story of the Count of Monte Cristo, a man wrongly accused of murder who goes to great ends to prove his innocence. It’s also a thoroughly convincing and enraging story of rank and privilege which will pull at your heartstrings as poor Danny has injustice after injustice flung at his head. With so much at stake, I brushed over the predictable characters, dubious plot points, and narrative conveniences; I just couldn’t wait for the bad guys to be taken down.

****
Restless – William Boyd – 2006. London: Bloomsbury. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Rosamund Pike

An exciting fictional story of a British woman sucked into spying and providing propaganda for the Russians in the United States just before WWII. Her story is told through her memoir which she hands to her adult daughter, providing her new insight into her mother and her own life. Excellent narration.

****
Rogue Lawyer – John Grisham – 2015. New York: Dell Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Mark Deakins

A series of separate tales in which a lone wolf defense attorney takes on cases no one else will: a mobster, a tragic victim of a mistaken swat team drug raid, a repellent loser who is somehow involved in sex trafficking, a boxer who killed a referee. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses, but he fights hard for justice, even if it means cutting a few—or a lot of—corners. Fun courtroom tactics and articulate tongue-lashings.

****
The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes – 2011. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

I was mesmerized by this tale of an aging man drawn back into his past. My father says that Barnes’ writing is all a frightened shriek about his mortality, but I am more sympathetic. Perhaps it is precious, but I admire his craft and, in this book in particular, the unfurling of a character’s psyche.

****
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin – 2014. Chapel Hill: Algonquin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Scott Brick

A widowed bookstore owner finds his determination to live out his life as a curmudgeon wavers after he meets a funny and practical book agent and someone leaves a baby in his store. Both charming and down to earth, the writing is good, and the story is sweet. It serves as a reminder of how close we all are to being saved, or not.

****
The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6) – Tana French – 2016. New York: Penguin Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Hilda Fay

Set in Dublin, with many references to the city, this mystery about the death of a young woman with secrets is entertaining and exotic. The lone female detective in the homicide unit carries a chip on her shoulder the size of a small planet and waits, slit-eyed, for abuse from her co-workers, from her partner on up. Irreverent, hostile, clever, and not just a little bit weird, she takes the reader through the details of the investigation so thoroughly one could write the case report. There are no stupid surprise endings here, just a realistic and melancholy thud of an ending. Excellent work and well read by the fabulous Hilda Fay.

****
The Weight of Blood – Laura McHugh – 2018. New York: Random House. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dorothy Dillingham Blue et al

Grim story of a girl trying to figure out what happened to a dismembered school mate as well as understand the disappearance of her own mother years before. Set in the Ozarks, the woods and hollers are wonderfully depicted strong characters along with the frankly unappealing small town weirdos and derelicts. True, the characters aren’t likeable, except our unblemished heroine, but the novel faithfully brings home the message that we are often kin to and even love people who are flawed. That’s life, folks. Yet another book with multiple narrators, the climax is a bit of a letdown, and there was an awful lot of repetition, but the writing was surprising and rich in description and emotion. The subject matter is not for the faint of heart.

 

Fiction reviews:

*****Five Stars

****Four Stars

***Three Stars

**Two Stars

* One Star

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