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Fiction Books – Two 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).

**
Are You Sleeping – Kathleen Berber – 2018. New York: Gallery Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Rebekkah Ross

A twin returns to her home in the suburbs of Chicago to attend a funeral and confront the mysteries behind her father’s murder a decade earlier which have been brought back to light by a popular crime podcast. The story had good bones, but some pointless frills take tension out of the story instead of adding to the momentum. After too much tiring running around, the big reveal fell flat and felt just sad. Again, my sympathy to the narrator who had to read Twitter and Reddit threads during a significant portion of the book.

**
The Arraignment (Paul Madriani #7) – Steve Martini – 2003. New York: Berkley. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Erik Bergmann

A man’s lawyer friend is assassinated on a public street, inspiring the friend to find out who killed him and why. After many twists and turns that aren’t actually that interesting, he does.

**
The Breakdown – B.A. Paris – 2018. New York: St. Martin’s Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Georgia Maguire

The author sounds like such a nice person, it pains me to say that this is not a good book, or rather, it had potential which was allowed to wander and flicker out. A woman’s murder traumatizes, for not really any great reason, an acquaintance who proceeds to unravel, ignoring evidence that any awake person would notice, and freaking out inexplicably over anonymous phone calls. You could chalk that up to her psychological state (she suspects that she suffers from dementia) until the recovery of a mobile phone containing clues magically transforms her into a great sleuth and a master manipulator. Especially challenging were the pages and pages of text messages the poor narrator had to read at the end, boringly detailing what most readers would have already guessed. Difficult-to-believe characters, uneven pacing, and the lack of any other possibilities for the murderer revealed the author’s lack of experience in the genre, but I hope she keeps trying.

**
Don’t You Cry – Mary Kubica – 2016. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Kate Rudd and Kirby Heyborne

An enjoyable start, given the refreshing forthrightness of the female protagonist, but the mystery turns bizarre as the author appears hellbent on frustrating the reader by ignoring normal mystery conventions and only slowly slowly working around to obvious avenues to be investigated and then carefully restating the obvious. Is this a mystery for dumb people? The book is told from two perspectives, and the second one, of a sad boy living on the edge of Lake Michigan, is more touching but ultimately heartbreaking. Very odd read. Excellent title, by the way, for the one really creepy and moving scene in the book.

**
The Edge of Normal (Reeve LeClaire #1) – Carla Norton – 2014. New York: St. Martin’s Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Christina Delaine

A woman who was kidnapped and held by a sadist for ten years as a girl becomes determined to help a survivor of a recent kidnapping and pieces together the common elements of two other kidnappings, leading to a frighting confrontation with a really bad guy.

**
The Expats – Chris Pavone – 2012. New York: Crown Publishing. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Mozhan Marno

This book came so highly recommended that perhaps my expectations were too high. A former CIA agent moves to Luxembourg for her husband’s new job, giving her an excuse to quit the agency and walk away from a truly shocking past sin. She becomes suspicious of some new friends and begins her own private investigation. Is her husband’s job what he says it is? Is he even the person that she thought he was? Layer on layer of intrigue is uncovered as she dives in deeper, but much of the book seemed terribly overwrought to me, and the characters’ motivations seemed to swing crazily from moment to moment. There is essentially no action as the story is told through the main character who is startlingly naïve and fickle. And it won an Edgar for first novel in 2013! That said, I loved the scenes in Luxembourg and Paris. Also the author of The Accident, Pavone seems to have real experience with the life of an expat housewife. Perhaps he should write about that instead of pretending to be a CIA agent.

**
Exposed – Lisa Scottaline – 2017. New York: St. Martins. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Kate Burton

Nothing happens for a significant chunk of the book except talking and paper shuffling until finally someone gets stabbed to death. Things move quickly then to another death and lawyers in peril. It all got wrapped up in a too pat bow for me, but I loved Judy, the law scholar in a denim skirt who likes to weave. The other characters were kept in their lane too much; I kept hoping someone would do something unpredictable. I found the narrator distracting when the action picked up, and she would begin ranting in a strident tone. Okay, I just read some reviews on Amazon, and clearly I know nothing since almost everyone but me loved this book.

**
Extreme Prey – John Sandford – 2017. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Richard Ferrone

A parallel to the Virgil Flowers series, this one presents Virgil’s buddy from the police, in this case, working as a consultant to a presidential campaign following his retirement from the agency. He gets wind of an assassination plot by some disillusioned left-wingers in Iowa and finds himself running out of time to track down the wanna-be-killers. The radicals are an interesting group, but their bloodthirstiness seems hard to believe, and their skill at evading detection ludicrous. I enjoyed the repartee between the players, but the protagonist is not as interesting as Flowers.

 

**
Girl in Snow – Danya Kukafka – 2018. New York: Simon & Schuster. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Candace Thaxton et al

It’s odd. There’s no doubt. A girl is found dead with a cracked skull on a carousel in a small town carousel. But let’s talk for most of the book about three characters who are peripherally related to her: Jade, a jealous cynical classmate, Cameron, a damaged classmate who is obsessed with the beautiful dead girl, and Russ, a detective with a boatload of baggage. Jade is bitter, rational, and funny—certainly the most interesting character. But most of the extensive character and back story development felt pointless, more like a writing exercise than helping or entertaining the reader. And, like so many of these modern novels, the denouement of the who-dun-it makes you question if the writer has ever read a who-dun-it before.

**
Gray Mountain – John Grisham – 2014. New York: Bantam Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Catherine Taber

A Grisham “issue” book about a laid-off New York attorney who takes up pro-bono work involving strip mining in West Virginia.

**
He Said/She Said: A Novel – Erin Kelly – 2017. New York: St. Martin’s. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Helen Johns

The heart of the matter is an alleged rape during a solar eclipse, perhaps witnessed by another couple. All the second-guessing during the trial seemed realistic—up to a point. Then the hysteria about various lies started to seem over the top. Newsflash: people lie. A lot. My patience seriously waned when the characters started acting wacky. And then… I hope this doesn’t qualify as a spoiler, but in all its “surprising” twists, the book seems to follow the guiding principle that: men suck. Too bad because the idea of tracking people by knowing that they will show up at the next eclipse is weirdly chilling. Another book told in flashbacks and from several points of view which serves to keep a curious reader going, but the unlikely ending is an ultimate ripoff.

**
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon – Billie Letts – 1998. New York: Warner Books.

Artificial and contrived, it offers some guilty pleasures with outrageous characters and some smart-alecky dialogue. I loved the idea of a mysterious stranger who shows up to carhop at a dusty old diner.

 

**
I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman – Nora Ephron – 2006. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Nora Ephron

I was displeased by another book that describes at length the trials of a woman coping with her hair, both on top of her head and elsewhere. Is that what passes for comedy from female writers? Still, I preferred that to her long accounts about unfair rent increases causing her eventually to move out of the Apthorp, a ritzy apartment building on the west side of Manhattan. There are oblique references to multiple marriages, none of which she makes interesting, and lots of words about food, mostly pedestrian. It wasn’t until she began talking about the death of her friend Judy that I felt a connection to her as a human being. I would have so preferred her to write about scriptwriting, Hollywood, or almost anything else. Bummer.

**
I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh – 2016. New York: Berkley. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Nicola Barber et al

A woman flees to the Welsh coast to hide from her past. Guess what, her past catches up. After a big gotcha on the reader, I felt a bit manipulated, as well as suffering from some significant eye-rolls at the plot contrivances. Some great visuals, and a predictable fight at the top of the bluff, but this one slipped away without much impact.

**
I See You – Clare Mackintosh – 2017. New York: Berkley. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Rachel Atkins

The writing is adequate, and I first enjoyed the tingle brought by such an evil enterprise. The antagonist sells the details of women’s commutes on the underground in London to expose them to customers. Once again, I suspected as the book proceeded that the author didn’t actually know who the bad guy was which doesn’t lead to a satisfying who-dun-it. Sure enough, she fingers one unbelievable suspect only to upset the apple cart in the epilogue and land on, surprise, an even more unbelievable one. Ridiculous.

**
Keep Her Safe – Sophie Hannah – 2017. New York: William Morrow. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Fiona Hardingham et al

There was enough intrigue in this story about an English woman with family problems running off to an Arizona spa and stepping right into the middle of a missing person case, but, after extraordinary efforts to tie up every little loose end several times over, to drop an unresolved bomb on us on the last page seemed quite unfair. WTF.

 

**
Leaving Time – Jodi Picoult – 2014. New York: Ballantine Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Rebecca Lowman et al

A teenager decided to figure out why her mother left her when she was only three. She engages the assistance of a disillusioned psychic and a down-on-his-luck detective. Apparently typical of Picoult, it has a surprise twist at the end, but by then I was so sick of hearing about the mother’s work with elephants that I didn’t even care.

**
Little Earthquakes – Jennifer Weiner – 2004. New York: Washington Square Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Johanna Parker

I started my first book by the acclaimed, or at least popular, Weiner with optimism—after all, two babies born immediately are named Julian and Oliver—but gradually came to the realization that the book had no plot. Once again, I was fooled into getting an abridged version of the book, so perhaps the full book had a semblance of a narrative arc. Very perplexing experience of reading the book seemingly just to hang out with some new moms and their various problems, most of which were not particularly terrible. The one real tragedy was so unexplained that it was hard to engage. Welp, one enthusiastic Amazon reviewer wrote, “This book has everything in the story plot.” So, what do I know?

**
My (Not So) Perfect Life – Sophie Kinsella – 2017. New York: Dial Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Fiona Hardingham

Another Kinsella story, which, sadly, seems to already be growing old even though it’s only the second I’ve read. Perhaps it’s not just me, and the romantic aspect of the story seemed tired even to Kinsella. The observations about branding and organics and other fads were very funny, and some of the repartee between the two lovebirds was amusing, but it was all too predictable and ultimately really too perfect.

**
One Kick (Kick Lannigan #1) – Chelsea Cain – 2014. New York: Simon & Schuster. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Heather Lind

A tough young woman who was sexually abused as a child attempts to find a missing boy before it’s too late. A creepy look at perversion and manipulation.

**
The Passenger – Lisa Lutz – 2016. New York: Simon & Schuster. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Madeleine Maby

A woman on the run criss-crosses the country, encountering a helpful barmaid, some bad guys, and a handsome lawman. Her backstory is slowly filled in by emails and hints, but it turns out to be not very interesting. Too many questions were raised about the plausibility of the recounted events, and the main character’s alarming departure from her own moral code partway through the book made me lose faith in her. The narrative arc felt circular and contrived as though the book had been taken apart and put back together resulting in a largely boring middle section and a surprisingly rushed ending. Unlike the NYT book reviewer, I had no interest in returning to the beginning to start again after I had finished the book.

**
Runner (Sam Dryden #1) – Patrick Lee – 2014. New York: Minotaur Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Raul Esparza

Begins with a bang when an eleven-year-old, fleeing agents of the government, literally runs into a retired special forces guy on a boardwalk in Southern California. He agrees to help her, but her story gets so unbelievable and full of nonsense that I lost interest.

**
Secrets to the Grave (Oak Knoll #2) – Tami Hoag – 2010. New York: Dutton. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Kirsten Potter

A lovely popular mother and artist is found murdered and butchered in a wealthy peaceful enclave of Los Angeles. Who could have done such a thing? A long meandering exploration of all possible suspects ensues, with a surprising lack of action and lack of direction. It seemed as though the author didn’t know who did it herself and just kept writing until she had ruled out everyone but the one I had already suspected for no particularly good reason. I enjoyed some of the characters and lots of the dialog, but the little town of Oak Knoll had more murderers, rapists, adulterers, and wackjobs than really should fit on five CDs, and as a who-dun-it, this was a failure.

**
The Separation – Katie Kitamura – 2017. New York: Riverhead Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Katherine Waterston

Really odd book about a wife who goes to search for her missing husband that didn’t seem to get going until the last page which presented an interesting idea which I wish had been explored earlier. At least we would have had something to talk about because previously I was mystified about what exactly the author thought she was doing. If that was supposed to be a mystery, it was the most boring mystery ever. Just when I thought it might turn interesting, it would meander off onto another path which it explored at length for no reason whatsoever. Sometimes a narrative arc is a good thing. Quite unclassifiable. Also, here again, what is it with these characters who say ridiculous things and then announce that they have no idea where those words came from—other than it was expedient for the writer for those words to burst out by accident so the plot could turn in a needed direction.

**
Set Up (Carol Ashton #11) – Claire McNab – 1999. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Caroline Lee

Read by the Caroline Lee, Australian narrator extraordinaire, but her performance can’t make up for a transparent plot and thin characters centered oddly around one lesbian sex scene. The ending was so abrupt, I had to double-check to be sure that I wasn’t missing a final disc.

**
Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn – 2006. New York: Three Rivers Press. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Ann Marie Lee

Disappointing earlier work by the writer of the great Gone Girl. A young woman returns home to confront her mother and investigate the disappearance of two girls. She unearths trouble.

**
Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane – 2017. New York: HarperCollins. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Julia Whelan

Man, I loved this book for so long, but then… First the good: wonderful title and theme, setting in Boston!, fabulous characters, intriguing plot, charming development of the romance and funny repartee between our two lovers, then… Our nervous heroine suddenly becomes the hardest woman on earth; our hero turns into a pretty bad guy, then back to good, then… What? It’s like the book was picked up halfway through by a different author who is desperately trying to tie things together without a roadmap. He clutches at some implausible twists, unlikely character reveals (I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt at that point although I was increasingly frowning) and downright weirdo scenes, some which defy physics and biology. Then he threw up his hands and bailed on the plot and simply stopped writing. What?

**
Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessi – 2006. New York: Penguin. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Emily Janice Card

A brainiac comes to a new school and meets a mysterious teacher. The story is an eventual failure, but it takes a long time to fail.

**
Then We Came to the End Ferris, Joshua – 2008. New York: Bay Back Books AUDIOBOOK narrated by Deanna Hurst

After reading Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Then We Came to the End and attempting to read The Unnamed, I have reached the conclusion that he is a good writer with nothing interesting to write about. In this, his first novel, he reports the disintegrating team dynamics of a group of advertising employees while their company flounders in the months leading up to 9/11, losing customers and suffering wave after wave of layoffs. He portrays the group members as spoiled, cocky gossips, more preoccupied with competing with each other than doing any productive work. They are hardly made more likeable when, as one after another is dismissed, they turn pathetic and hateful. One certainly feels sympathy toward their supervising partner, a workaholic who may or may not be suffering from breast cancer, and her character is well-described but somehow never comes to life.
This is not to say that Ferris is not funny. Like an articulate and loquacious Dilbert, he dissects with outstanding snark the tedium, pettiness, and minutiae of the workplace, the underlying humiliation of working for the Man. His observations are astute enough that he may have spent time in an office environment, but I get the sense that he didn’t like it very much. The flashes of humanness—a man reading Emerson aloud to a depressed co-worker during lunchtime, another risking arrest by obliterating a Missing Person billboard for a colleague’s daughter months after the girl’s strangled body was discovered in an empty lot, the panic that sweeps through the group when a rumor spreads that people are being let go because they swapped their chair for someone else’s—are endearing, but they aren’t enough to disguise the fact that the book has essentially no plot.

 

**
A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher #17) – Lee Child – 2012. New York: Dell Books. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Dick Hill

Maybe it’s been too recent since I listened to that last Jack Reacher story, but this one fell a bit flat. The notion of a random kidnapped woman being capable of what she proved was beyond belief, and Reacher would have cottoned on to that also. The invasion of the impenetrable military storage unit and subsequent gun fight was ludicrous. And someone named Lester Lester? Come on. Also, it’s time for Dick Hill to retire.

**
What the Dead Know – Laura Lippman – 2007. AUDIOBOOK narrated by Linda Emond

Two teenage daughters went missing thirty years ago, and no trace of them was ever found. Now a woman is in the hospital, claiming to be one of them. The story moves along, with shifting points of view, and from different points in time, but the behavior of the characters is often so peculiar that it becomes a distraction, and other parts of the plot are just perplexing. She seems to be a capable writer, but there was so little interaction between the characters that there’s not really a story, just a mystery, that when it’s revealed seems a bit ho-hum. It does have a happy ending.

 

Fiction reviews:

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