What I’m Reading: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow

Fiona Barton

Berkeley Publishing Group

February 2016

DISCLAIMER: I received a free e-galley from Berkeley Publishing (via Net Galley) in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 
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I was invited to participate in a blog book tour for the February 2016 release of The Widow by Fiona Barton. Here’s my review for this stop on the tour.

The Widow, by Fiona Barton, is a pretty interesting read. Set in the United Kingdom, it follows Jean Taylor, the recent widow of accused child kidnapper (and possible murderer) Glen Taylor. The story opens as Jean is still reeling from the sudden death of her husband after being hit by a bus. Glen had never been formally charged with the kidnapping of Bella Elliott, though he’d been questioned heavily after her disappearance. The interference of the police alienated the Taylors, particularly Jean, from their neighbors and forced them to rely on each other even more for support and camaraderie. The police, as well as reporters, had always suspected that Jean knew more about Bella’s disappearance than she said. With Glen’s death, Jean was free from any obligations that she may have had to her husband while he was alive. And Jean decided to start talking.

Barton did a very good job of building suspense throughout the novel. What I especially liked was the eventual humanization of Jean’s character. At first, she came across as somewhat of an caricatured automaton, a mousy wife who was completely controlled by her psychologically abusive husband. As the book progresses, we see the layers of Jean, alluded to by the character herself as “Jean” versus “Jeanie”. These hidden facets belied a keen cleverness and mastery of subtle manipulation, and I as a reader became hooked by Jean’s character as each layer was revealed.

Barton did another good job in the character of Kate Waters, the ambitious reporter who eventually scores a coveted interview with Jean. This was another case of a cookie-cutter character who becomes more than meets the eye. No apologies are made for Kate’s ambition or methodology, and there is no moral undertone to her success in the vein of “everything has a price.” Still, the character manages to garner sympathy as she manages to outwit her competition to garner an interview with perhaps the most famous widow in recent times, and strain her relationships with those who helped her get to Jean.

Unfortunately for Barton, she did rely on clichés with her male characters, particularly Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes. Sparkes became the quintessential over-obsessed law enforcement official who pursues a case to the detriment of his personal and professional lives. Sparkes’s boss, was the superior who wanted to make the headlines, even at the cost of those who worked under him. Likewise, Glen Taylor becomes just another garden-variety pedophile and narcissist; his behavior and personality are textbook, and leave little to the imagination. Perhaps this is because Barton wanted the women in the book–Jean, Kate, and Bella’s mother Dawn Elliott–to be the focus of the story. Indeed, the entire story is very female-centric and a statement on how women are actually the complicated creatures we are often made out to be, and are usually not how we appear to be.

The ending of the book was a bit anticlimactic, which marred an otherwise gripping story. There was also an issue with changing points of view near the end of the book, especially with Detective Zara Salmond. Her POV seemed abrupt and out of place, and Barton would have been better served sticking to those of the primary characters in the story–Jean, Kate, and Sparkes–and relegating Salmond to the background with the other characters.

Others have compared The Widow to the novel The Girl On the Train, which is a bit of a disservice since I found the latter to be underwhelming and not deserving of the hype surrounding it.   The Widow is much better, and a psychological thriller worth trying.

What I’m Reading: The Alchemists of Kush

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Critically acclaimed author Minister Faust returns with his fourth novel, The Alchemists of Kush.  Set in both modern-day Edmonton and ancient Sudan, this speculative fiction novel follows the path of two boys who must harness ancient knowledge in order to combat a great evil.

Raphael “Rap” Deng Garang was just your average seventeen year-old war refugee hanging on the streets of Edmonton, Canada. Half-Sudanese and half-Somali, he had one foot in both worlds but truly belonged in neither, especially in the close-knit Somali community in which he lived with his mother. A joy ride in a stolen car with a good friend led Rap down a path of self-knowledge that transformed him into Supreme Raptor, the “conscious rap” sensation.

Hru was a child soldier in ancient Sudan, helping the other children of his village survive when raiders destroyed their village. Forced to rely on rudimentary fighting  skills, Hru and the other child soliders manage to eke out an existence in the forest until they arrived at the ocean, in which the Great Devourer of Souls resided. Hru becomes the sole survivor of an attack by the Devourer, which leads him on a quest to find his mother and claim a birthright he didn’t know he had—as Horus, the son of Osiris.

Faust does a riveting job in alternating between modern-day Canada and ancient Sudan by way of Kush; the book is divided into four parts, and each part has two divisions: The Book of Then (which takes place in ancient times) and the Book of Now (which takes place in modern-day Edmonton.  The title of each of the four parts is key to the occurrences in that particular part, and takes on a greater sense of importance as the story progresses. As readers follow Rap’s path from an errant teenage refugee  to a young community leader, they are treated to a parallel course in history in the guise of the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. Indeed, the final portion of the book is the text of the Book of the Golden Falcon, which is the seminal text from which Rap and his cohorts are taught to elevate and expand themselves. The Alchemists of Kush is heavy on allegory, and readers would do well to take this into account while delving into this novel.  Faust has managed to make history cool, and the Book of the Golden Falcon gives a lesson not commonly found in neither public nor private educational institutions in any country. The underlying message of the novel is one of self-improvement, self-sufficiency, and elevating others to their best selves; while this message is imprinted upon the teenagers in the novel, it can be applied by all ages. Even better, you can read all of the Books of Then or the Books of Now in order, for a different yet equally entertaining reading experience which puts an entirely different spin on the novel.  Fans of Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Charles Saunders would enjoy The Alchemists of Kush.

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Advance Notice: Crimson Shore by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Hi, all! “Advance Notice” is a new section where I review the galleys (advance reading copies) I received via Net Galley and other sources. Most of these books are near their public publication date, so consider this a spoiler alert!

Crimson Shore

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central Publishing

Publication Date: November 10, 2015

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I usually try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction books when I post what I’m reading, but this time I had to jump into Crimson Shore when I was recently approved to read the galley by Net Galley. And yes, there were other galleys that had earlier publication dates, but I was in a Pendergast kind of mood.

I have been a longtime Preston/Child/Pendergast fan since Relic, which introduced the irreverently unorthodox FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, of the New Orleans Pendergasts, in 2007. I first picked up Relic at a used book sale for fifty cents, and was hooked. I even read some of the separately written books by both Preston (I recommend The Codex) and Child (Deep Storm was good).

Crimson Shore is the fifteenth installment in the Pendergast series. This book has Pendergast taking on what appears to be a routine wine theft on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, except that the wine overlooked by the thieves was of an extremely rare vintage. Pendergast, being a great oenophile, took the case on the condition that he would receive a bottle of the wine as payment (no small gesture, as one bottle was worth at least $10,000). He also saw this as an opportunity to further socialize his ward and quasi-forbidden love interest Constance Greene, in an attempt to re-cage the savagery she exhibited in Blue Labyrinth. Pendergast navigates the abusive power of the local police chief, and utilizes the assistance of the deputy chief–who comes from one of the town’s prominent families–when the wine theft reveals roots in the town’s dark history regarding a local shipwreck in the 1700s. Bizarre deaths lead a gruesome trail to an unexpected ending, which may finally use up the last of Pendergast’s seemingly nine lives.

Preston and Child still deliver excitement in Crimson Shore, but I can’t say that I’m that enamored of Constance as a more prominent character. Her role has grown in each book since The Cabinet of Curiousities, but I rather liked her when she was confined to an enclosed space, be it Pendergast’s Riverside Drive home; a cruise ship; or a mental institution (she was actually at her best there). Constance on the loose in society, and struggling to acclimate herself to modern public ways, was an incongruous note in an otherwise harmonious book.  I’m also on the fence about Pendergast’s obvious feet of clay since Fever Dream; while humanizing his character (Pendergast driving a Porsche? Really?), the razor-sharp investigative skills and abrasive, yet genteel Southern charm that put him on the public map seem to be eroding since that book; this becomes more evident in Crimson Shore. Still, Pendergast fans will enjoy his latest adventure, and the cliffhanger, while surprising, will not cause too much worry among the Pendergast fan club. There is also a recipe of sorts for preparing Sole a la Pendergast, a fillet of fish with a wine-based, creamy mushroom sauce.

Crimson Shore is available for pre-order at a discount; the book will be released on November 10, 2015, at full price.

RETRO READS: Dark Paradise by Tami Hoag

Hi all!  Welcome to Retro Reads, where I talk about my favorite books that were published at least ten years ago. You can still find most of them online, though sometimes they have been re-released with a different cover and/or title. I will let you know if a book is out of print and/or otherwise unavailable.

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Original paperback cover

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Re-release paperback cover

Dark Paradise
Tami Hoag
Mystery/Suspense
Publication date: 1994
Status: In print/Available

Yesterday, I noticed that some neighbors a few houses down have llamas in their front yard. Being that I live in the city part of Atlanta, I was a bit taken aback; wildlife of that magnitude isn’t usually seen around here (although the Mennonite church a few blocks down has sheep, which are available for rent to chew up rogue shrubbery, but I digress).

Seeing the llamas reminded me of Dark Paradise, the first Tami Hoag novel I ever read. The novel is set in Montana and tells the story of Marilee Jennings, a court reporter in California who takes a leave of absence from her job to pay a much-needed visit to her friend Lucy. Lucy was a fellow court reporter who came into a mysterious inheritance and ditched her job to live in Montana a year prior. When Marilee (“Mari”) arrives on Lucy’s doorstep, she finds Lucy’s expensive-looking house ransacked and learns the news of Lucy’s allegedly accidental death–and that Lucy left everything to her, including the llamas in the spacious backyard. Mari soon figures out that Lucy’s death wasn’t an accident and someone took the fall for it.  Her quest to bring the true killer to justice almost gets her put in a grave next to Lucy–even as she fends off the pressure from John “JD” Rafferty, the attractive owner of the neighboring ranch who wants her to sell Lucy’s land to him, to further his own agenda.

Dark Paradise has the right balance of suspense and romance; indeed, the character development is as enjoyable as the plot–which doesn’t have a stereotypical “happily ever after” ending. . What I like best about the characters are their flaws; Hoag makes them truly human, questionable decisions and all. The plot is an interesting commentary on gentrification and how it is furthered in areas considered playgrounds for the wealthy, and the ripple effect on long-term area citizens. This book was written back in 1994, before gentrification became so prevalent here in America, yet the message still resonates today.

I’ve gone on to read and enjoy other books written by Hoag, but Dark Paradise remains my favorite. It’s an engaging read that is worth the trip.

Thanks for stopping by.

What I’m Reading: The Gauguin Connection by Estelle Ryan

Like many, I like to take advantage of free (and reduced price) ebooks offered through sites such as Bookbub; it’s a good way to discover new (to you) author.

[It’s also a good way to clog up your e-reader with ebooks you intend to read “someday”, “when I have time”,  but I digress.]

The Gauguin Connection, by Estelle Ryan, popped up last year on Bookbub as a free ebook.

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I’m a fan of mystery/thriller/suspense novels, and this one had a rather intriguing premise: an art investigator who was also a high-functioning autistic. A good friend of mine is also high-functioning autistic, so I was curious to see how this condition would be woven into a story.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Gauguin Connection introduces Dr. Genevieve Lenard, an autistic art investigator for an insurance company in France. She is sucked into a murder/theft/forgery case when a college girl is found murdered, and a piece of a famous Gauguin painting is found on her body–the same painting that is insured by Genevieve’s company. Genevieve uses both her investigative skills and her astuteness at reading body language to solve this case and many others to which the murdered girl was connected.

Genevieve’s character, by dint of her autism, relies heavily on body language in order to function adequately in society. She doesn’t understand slang, colloquialisms, or sarcasm, to the frustration of most who meet her. She also has a limited filter, and often speaks her mind with no concern as to whether or not someone’s feelings (or ego) might be hurt. I found myself laughing aloud at the character’s bluntness; she reminded me a bit of myself, many years ago (no autism, just a tendency to speak without employing diplomacy :D). Autism is not a laughing matter, but Ryan wrote Genevieve in a way that allowed the underlying humor of her remarks to shine through. Plus, I’m a smartass, so I appreciated Genevieve’s responses to asinine questions and replies.

I was also fascinated by Genevieve’s interpretation of body language as a means of assimilating in society. It is often said that most communication among people is nonverbal, and this book reiterates that. I picked up some interesting kinesthetic clues that bear further study, and it made the story even more interesting.

The book may have been a bit heavy-handed on the whole “socializing Genevieve” concept, along with a couple of stereotypical characters (e.g., the overstressed, focused lawman intent on pursuing justice; the lawman and criminal who constantly outwit each other, yet have a grudging mutual respect). Still, I found The Gauguin Connection to be an entertaining read, and I already purchased the next book in the series (which is up to eight books, so far).

[Heads up: the ebook is still free !]

Thanks for stopping by.

RETRO READS: Streetlethal by Steven Barnes

Hi all!  Welcome to Retro Reads, where I talk about my favorite books that were published at least ten years ago. You can still find most of them online, though sometimes they have been re-released with a different cover and/or title. I will let you know if a book is out of print and/or otherwise unavailable.

 

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Streetlethal

Steven Barnes

Sci-Fi/Speculative Fiction

Publication Date: 1983

Status: Out of print/Available used

Streetlethal was my first purchase from Borderlands Books in San Francisco. 🙂 I’d already become a fan of Steven Barnes’  books Lion’s Blood and Great Sky Woman (I checked them out from the public library), but I’d never heard of Streetlethal until I saw it while browsing in the bookstore. I bought it and another of his (unknown to me) books, The Kundalini Equation.

Streetlethal takes place in a somewhat dystopian future Los Angeles. The story centers around Aubrey Knight, a highly skilled nullboxer (nullboxing is like MMA to the nth degree) who becomes an enforcer for the Ortegas, a powerful drug family who also dabbles in black market organ selling and prostitution.  Aubry is set up by his new girlfriend/drug addict (guess who is her supplier?) because he wants to quit working for the Ortegas–which is not done–and sent to a maximum security prison for murder.

(Never trust a big butt and a smile, Aubry.)

He eventually escapes and goes after Luis Ortega, the man who orchestrated his set-up, which is how he meets Promise–a woman who had taken Aubry’s ex-girlfriend/snitch under her wing and got her into rehab. Promise becomes Aubry’s “in” to the Ortegas, with interesting results.

The technological advances in the novel are quite mind-boggling, especially considering that the book was written in the early 1980s. Barnes’s gift is showcasing the range of human emotion in all of his characters. In Aubry Knight and, eventually, Promise, we get everything from euphoria/”top of the world”; to the depths of despair when your world is snatched from beneath your feet; to the unique mindset of athletes, especially professional ones; to the confusion and borderline resignation when things don’t quite work out the way you’d planned. In his strong secondary characters (Tomaso Ortega and Kevin Warrick are excellent) we get the roller-coaster ride of power plays, drug addiction, insecurity, family dynamics, and the urgent drive that comes from feeling like time is running out when you have too much to do. It’s also nice to read a post-apocalyptic novel that doesn’t include zombies; then again, zombies weren’t as much of a thing in the eighties.

I missed the memo that Streetlethal is the first in a trilogy (it pays to read those last few pages of advertisements in a book), and that Aubry’s journey continues in Gorgon Child and Firedance (that has been rectified–thank you, Amazon used books). Fans of dystopian stuff, martial arts, science wonks, and diverse sci-fi/speculative fiction would enjoy this novel.

Thanks for stopping by.

What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

It’s finally over.

This sense of relief is my predominate emotion after slogging through The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis. Not that the book is terrible, per se. Lewis drops some valid gems throughout the book, and I found myself highlighting passages as if I were back in college. The book was obviously a labor of love. However, her writing style, while perhaps appropriate for her career in the upper echelons of the art world (especially writing art critiques), doesn’t quite translate to the hoi polloi reading audience. Once upon a time, I lived for the flowery yet convoluted sentence structure employed in the book, along with liberal sprinklings of $2.50 words and obscure art and cultural references beyond certain circles; it’s why I was a fan of the late Manning Marable (in fact, Lewis’s writing style reminds me of Marable’s–a lot). Nowadays, maybe my brain is just too old (or overworked) to cut through anyone’s etymological maze in the name of being perceived as one of the smart kids–which I already am –or stopping every other sentence to look up a reference that I don’t understand or with I am unfamiliar.

To quote singer Tamar Braxton: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” 😉

[I mean, I love using my extensive vocabulary as much as the next nerd, but as a writer I know that my readers have to understand what I’m writing if they are to be engaged enough to drop some shekels in my basket. Feel me?]

Lewis uses The Rise as a platform to examine the correlation between creativity, failure, and mastery. Or rather, why some people use failure as an impetus to achieve mastery, while others use it as an excuse to quit. Why some creative people are content to exist within the prescribed, time-tested parameters of their particular niche; while others are willing to jump off a cliff at the risk of falling to their deaths while hoping to sprout wings and fly. The premise is valid; the execution, not so much.

Lewis likes to pack a lot of information into a small space; she will mention thermodynamics, Shakespeare, Sumerian myth, modern dance, and arctic exploration–sometimes all in one paragraph. The spasmodic jumps between exemplars lack the smoothness of, say, Malcolm Gladwell (to whom Lewis was unfairly compared), who has written bestsellers in a similar vein as The Rise: taking a subject and figuring out how it affects (or doesn’t) certain groups of people. Add this to the aforementioned maze-like conveyance of ideas and a penchant for name-dropping, and I understand why this book was such a chore for me to read.

As I’ve said before: the book isn’t bad, just tedious. Lewis’s perspective on failure and mastery is interesting, though not presented a clearly as I’d like. There’s good stuff in there, but you have to dig for it (alcohol and/or skimming ahead optional). I just had higher hopes for the content, given the initial hype surrounding the book in literary circles.

Thanks for stopping by.

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