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Fiction Books – Three Stars – Some Merit

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).

***
Anatomy of a Scandal – Sarah Vaughan – 2018. New York: Emily Bestler Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Julie Teal et al

Timely story about a powerful, rich, charming man accused of rape. The prosecution is led by a woman who has her own past with the defendant and his beautiful privileged wife (yes, yes, we understand that’s a wild conflict of interest, but let’s ignore that for the sake of this rather undramatic courtroom drama). A detailed deconstruction of the problems with he said/she said cases.

***
Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough – 2017. New York: Flat Iron Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Anna Bentinck and Bea Holland

Gone Girl meets Behind the Eyes of Laura Mars, I was fascinated by this story until I realized it had a supernatural component that I hadn’t anticipated which let me down and felt a bit too convenient. Nevertheless the character development was fun, the evil deliciously twisted, and the ending a surprise. The constant drinking was a bit over the top; I felt like I should have a hangover after each chapter.

 

***
The Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1) – Michael Connelly – 1992. New York: Little, Brown and Co. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dick Hill

A body is found in a drainpipe at Mulholland Dam which turns out to be the long-lost Nam buddy of LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch. Investigating the murder leads him not only down his own memory lane but into the sewer tunnels under the city where the final plot twist takes place. Competently written if a bit predictable.

 

***
Citizen Girl McLaughlin, E., and Kraus, N – 2005. New York: Washington Square Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by the authors

This novel is promoted as a comic report on the trials and tribulations of a humanities graduate whose degree appears to qualify her for a future no brighter than spending her days as an over-worked admin assistant, living in a closet-sized room in New York, with no hope of paying off her student loans. Anticipating an exploration of the new economy from the perspective of a recent grad, I was surprised to discover that’s not what the book is about at all. It’s a thoughtful though somewhat garbled story* about a young feminist, strangely named “Girl,” who is hired to re-brand a commercial website focused on selling health and beauty supplies to women. The intent of the re-branding is to appeal to what the male management refers to as “Ms. Readers.” Sound challenging? It is. Enter an embittered Eastern European prostitute, a possibly insane British clothier who specializes in swimming pool-to-bedroom outfits, a sexist gay re-branding expert, and you have the makings for one nutty job. To our growing admiration, Girl manages to hold it together, attempting to stay true to her ideals in a world where feminism has become irrelevant. Although the production of the audiobook is subpar, the story is worth hearing.
*I discovered later that the audiobook version is abridged which might explain some of the strange dangling ends.

***
Deadline – Sandra Brown – 2013. New York: Grand Central Publishing. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Stephen Lang

Brown produces another sexy protagonist whose FBI friend/father figure sends him on a mission to find the long-missing son of two domestic terrorists who have been in hiding for decades. A journalist by trade, he begins to unravel an amazing story as he gets to know the son’s ex-wife who helps him acknowledge his PTSD. Brown’s characters are good, but this plot had more kinks than a phone cord, and the final gotcha is so farcical that it brings out a chortle instead of a dropped jaw.

***
Down River – John Hart – 2011. New York: St. Martin’s Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Scott Sowers

A classic murder mystery set in North Carolina. An interesting and troubled protagonist. Lots of family dysfunction.

***
Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey – 2015. New York: HarperCollins. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Davina Porter

A woman in her eighties, suffering from dementia, recounts the dramatic events surrounding the disappearance of her sister sixty years in the past and tries to find a missing friend. The protagonist is funny and observant, but it is painful to see her struggle with her memory loss, and there must be something wrong with a book about a detective with Alzheimers. The characters are well-painted, and the story is compelling, just not completely satisfying as a who-dun-it.

***
Feast of Love – Charles Baxter – 2000. New York: Pantheon Books

An exploration of love as reported by Charlie and his associates. I guess it’s probably genuine, and parts are eye-opening though not in a good way. Is it possible this kind of writing is dated? The perspectives of male characters about women were mostly disturbing.

 

***
Forced Out – Stephen Frey – 2012. New York: Pocket Star Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by L. J. Ganser

Mix together: an embittered former Yankees scout, a young phenom who fancies himself a new Mickey Mantle and who is on the run from the mob, an erudite black kid who wants nothing more than to help his mother, a lovelorn gangster and waterboarding specialist who would love to escape his boss, a smarmy sadistic player, an abandoned baby, and a thirty-something beauty with vague ideas of growing up. Bake slowly. Enjoy with relish and a grain of salt.

***
Funny Once – Antonya Nelson – 2014. New York: Bloomsbury.

Beware, these stories suck you in with easy-going narratives of families and regular life, only to turn around and zap you with stunning heartbreak or a sharp comic smack. I can criticize this MFA-approved type of writing, but it works and is satisfying, partly because of its respect for the reader.

***
The Girl Before – JP Delaney – 2018. New York: Ballantine Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Emilia Fox

The chilling story of a two successive women who move into an unusual house is told from both their points of view as the second woman seeks to unravel what happened in the house before she arrived. The role of the house, a demanding and potentially malevolent spare architectural masterpiece filled with technology, remains a mystery until the last twists of this creepy page-turner.

***
Gone to Dust (Nils Shapiro #1) – Matt Goldman – 2017. New York: A Forge Book. AUDIOBOOK narrated by MacLeod Andrews

Enter a new PI, a Minnesota Jew who drives an old car and doesn’t drink much. He says he would make a bad fictional PI. I don’t agree. He’s quick-witted, doesn’t suffer fools, and doesn’t flaunt or excuse his shortcomings including his inconvenient love for his ex-wife. I especially enjoyed his shenanigans in embarrassing the FBI and others with a bit too much authorité who try to pin the murder of a woman found in her bed covered in vacuum cleaner bag dust on the wrong guy. A who-dun-it that wraps up neatly with all evidence correctly presented and explained. No stupid illogical gotchas here.

***
The Heavens May Fall – Allen Eskens – 2016. Seventh Street Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by R. C. Bray, David Colacci et al

Besides having an excellent title, this book entertained me with multiple surprises, some perhaps unrealistic, but they still worked for me. One, near the end of the book, left me sitting stunned on my exercise mat with my mouth hanging open. The writing is a bit plodding, including some surprisingly unnecessary details and over-explanation, and there’s essentially no action except speaking, driving, and reading until the very end, but I enjoyed the legalistic machinations well-explained by a defense attorney.

 

***
I Am Charlotte Simmons – Tom Wolfe – 2004. New York: St. Martin’s Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dylan Baker

Wolfe’s opus on college life is profane, overwrought, and occasionally spot on. I did listen to an abridged version of the full length 21 discs which resulted in some giant plot discontinuities. Although I enjoyed the book, I was somehow not motivated to go listen to the full version. Like young people of that age, the book took itself a bit too seriously and made a big deal out of things that weren’t really a big deal.

***
IQ – Joe Ide – 2016. New York: Mulholland Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Sullivan Jones

A charismatic ne’er-do-well and a sharp kid suffering from the tragic loss of his brother reunite to solve a murder attempt after the dissolution of their thievery operation. Both characters are well drawn and interesting, but I once again became suspicious that the author hadn’t really decided who the culprit was. Again, that leads to an unsatisfactory who-dun-it. The “bling noir” style was a blast until the ludicrous gunfight, followed by a meandering plot line, and a very doubtful culprit. The style was really fun however, and I hope the author, a Japanese American from the hood, tries again.

***
Identical – Scott Turow – 2013. New York: Grand Central Publishing. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Henry Leyva

More twists and turns than the path up to Seven Lakes Lookout. Interesting forensics involving identical twins though the story goes on so long it gets a bit far-fetched. The cultural commentary on Greeks-in-America also added to the story, especially the antics of a profane aunt.

***
The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10) – Louise Penny – 2014. New York: Minotaur Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Ralph Cosham

An artist has an appointment to return to his wife after a year’s separation. When he doesn’t appear, she engages the assistance of Quebec’s chief inspector, and they embark on a road trip following leads in the artist’s paintings. The characters of the small town in which they live are wonderful, but the plot becomes a burden and the outcome ultimately unsatisfying.

***
Low Pressure – Sandra Brown – 2012. New York: Hachette. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Stephen Lang

Years after her sister’s murder, a woman anonymously writes a bestseller raising questions about the case. She is unmasked by a nasty reporter which brings a killer and her sister’s charming former boyfriend to her doorstep (not the same guy). Parts of the plot seemed awkward, and the bit about her losing her memory was tiresome, but there were some interesting characters, and the dialog was amusing.

***
Missing, Presumed (Manon Bradshaw #1) – Susie Steiner – 2016. New York: Random House. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Juanita McMahon

The prequel to Persons Unknown, still read by the terrific Juanita McMahon, this is the story of detective Mahon meeting the young Fly while she tries to find a missing beautiful twenty-six year old daughter of an important physician. Again, I was struck by the emotional and uncontrolled behavior of a supposedly talented police detective, but the interplay between Manon and her co-workers is fun and good-hearted.

***
The Mistletoe Murder – P.D. James – 2016. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Jenny Agutter and David Weyman

These four short stories were published posthumously. I am a big PD James fan, but found these to be not quite as mesmerizing as her novels. Competent yes, but I found my attention wandering at times. Most amusing was the playful references James makes to crime fiction, referring for example to the library as “that most fatal room.”

 

***
Never Go Back (Jack Reacher #18) – Lee Child – 2013. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dick Hill

Jack Reacher’s 18th could risk predictability, but Child is a pro and again has come up with an interesting story and good characters. Reacher returns to his old military police base to “have dinner with” a woman who has taken over his post. He finds her in jail and himself returned to military status and placed under arrest. A daring escape and road trip ensue in which lots of bad guys get hurt, coffee gets drunk, and Reacher tries to figure out if he’s a father and what the hell is going on in Afghanistan. A great yarn.

 

***
One for the Money (Stephanie Plum #1) – Evanovich, Janet – 2011. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by C.J. Critt

Not great literature, but it sure is fun. After losing her car and her job, Stephanie is desperate for cash and sees an opportunity to make a quick buck working for her sleazy cousin Vinny as a bounty hunter. And she can kill two birds with one stone by bringing down the cocky hottie who broke her heart in high school. Local color, New Joysey accents, and lots of action make for a funny and entertaining story about a working girl learning a new trade.

 

***
Persons Unknown (Manon Bradshaw #2) – Susie Steiner – 2017. New York: Random House. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Juanita McMahon

A different take on a murder investigation when the victim turns out to be the detective’s sister’s ex-husband who was cavorting with a prostitute with a heart of gold. We are drawn to the imperfect and somewhat unbelievable detective whose hands are full with her pregnancy, her troubled teenage adopted son, an investigation implicating an innocent, and the less-than-innocent behavior of her sister. The third star is solely earned by Birdie, the irrepressible shop owner who harbors the lovely Angel.

***
Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh #14) – PD James – 2008. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

A woman arrives at a clinic to have a scar removed but gets murdered instead. PD James is such a pro; her characters are so human, her novels feel more like narrative nonfiction. Superb writing.

***
Redemption Road – John Hart – 2016. New York: St. Martin’s. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Scott Shepherd

Hart cooks up a complicated thriller of unsolved murders, judicial procedures, love and insanity. It’s good enough to keep you working out, but it’s not satisfying as a who-dun-it and its residual impression is one of sadness and disappointment, whether in the book or in human beings.

***
The Rosie Project – Gaeme Simsion – 2013. New York: Simon & Schuster

Classic romcom with a few extra chuckles thrown in at the expense of our maladroit hero who claims to be looking for love but wouldn’t recognize it until it hurled him to the ground, put him in a headlock, and covered him with kisses.

***
Saturday – Ian McEwan – 2005. New York: Random Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Steven Crossley

I have been listening to Ian McEwan’s Saturday while out on my hike. The beauty of his writing has discouraged me immensely. As those sentences roll through my head, I can hear the kind of writing I would like to achieve as a kind of far-off island, barely visible through the fog, from where I am standing with my feet stuck on the beach of mediocrity. It’s the dilemma that Ira Glass kindly wrote about in his advice for new writers, that it’s our “killer taste” that makes us so dissatisfied with our own work. I was bemoaning my fate to Tom when I did say that I had some reservations about a story in which (spoiler alert) a criminal in the midst of a home invasion is so moved by the recitation of a poem that he calls off the deed and lets the family go. Tom, who by this point was staring at me in astonishment, pointed out that such a story might be a sign that the writer is in fact terrible. “But the sentences, the sentences…” I murmured.

***
The Secret Keeper – Kate Morton – 2012. New York: Simon & Schuster. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Caroline Lee

A long, long story of love, betrayal, fate, evil, and murder, read by the amazing Caroline Lee. A girl witnesses a crime and fifty years later embarks on a quest to uncover the events that led to that day which means delving into her ninety-year-old mother’s past, back into WWII England, and the intertwined lives of her best friend and her lover.

***
The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5) – Tana French – 2014. New York: Penguin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson

A tough Irish cop and her new partner investigate a new clue in the murder of a young man found on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school. The voices and verbal mannerisms of the teenage girls have been captured perfectly (French trained as an actress), but although I loved their attitudes and snark (they nearly drive the detectives to distraction), I did have some trouble keeping them straight. The story turned out to be pretty complicated, and motives got hazy, but the main characters were compelling.

***
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett – 2011. New York: HarperCollins. AUDIOBOOK narrated by the irritating Hope Davis

A pharmaceutical researcher travels to the Amazon to discover what happened to her colleague. What could have been a good yarn with some remarkable personas was damaged by the characters suddenly losing their minds and doing something so unpredictable that the sudden loss of suspension of disbelief snaps the reader’s head back like a broken bungee chord. The protagonist is sometimes such a nitwit you can’t believe she is who she is reported to be. There were some lovely phrasings, like the description of an aerogram as “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to the world.” Eventually however the story just kept getting sillier and sillier until I lost patience.

***
Sh*t My Dad Says – Halpern, Justin – 2010. New York: HarperCollins. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Sean Schemmel

Extremely funny book about Justin’s dad. Sometimes crude. And rude. Did I mention hilarious?

***
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris – 2014. New York: Little, Brown and Company. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Campbell Scott

It begins like the funniest novel you’ve ever read but hesitates, stumbles, meanders away from the story, and fades into the distance. At the least the narrator was great.

***
The Wife – Meg Wolitzer – 2003. New York: Scribner. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dawn Harvey

This accomplished author takes on the story of a disillusioned wife who is reconsidering her marriage after forty years. It’s eye-opening and funny at times, but the gotcha ending will have been guessed by many readers much earlier and seemed contrived to tip the scales toward the wife. Nevertheless, worth reading for her creative analogies and deft phrasings.

 

 

Fiction reviews:

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