Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review of Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener

Image of Strangers in Budapest: A Novel

Author: Jessica Keener
Release date: November 14, 2017
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Pages: 352
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Budapest is a city of ambiguities and secrets, stunningly beautiful, historic but mysterious. It is to this enigmatic place that a young American couple, Annie and Will, move with their infant son shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. For Annie it is an effort to escape the ghosts from her past; for Will it is a chance to try his wings as an entrepreneur in Hungary’s newly developing economy.
Only weeks after moving there they receive a request from friends back home asking them to check up on an acquaintance, an elderly friend who has also recently moved to Budapest. What the couple does not know, of course, is that in complying with that request, they will become entangled in a dark and deadly feud, one that climaxes in a stunning loss of innocence and a shocking end.

Jessica Keener is the bestselling author of Night Swim and a collection of award-winning short stories, Women in Bed. She has taught English literature and writing at Brown University, and her works have appeared in O Magazine, Redbook, the Boston Globe, and others. Her new novel Strangers in Budapest is a fabulously complex and mysterious tale that is full of atmosphere and suspense. It’s a multifaceted novel that explores how our choices affect others and how our past often shapes our future.

Will and Annie are trying to incorporate themselves into the unsettled business world of Budapest in the 1990s. Things go awry when they meet the enigmatic expatriate, Edward Weiss, an elderly Jewish American who is seeking answers about his daughter’s death. Edward is on the hunt for the man he believes murdered his wheelchair-bound daughter and fled with her money.

Annie decides she wants to help him, but she is naively unaware that his plan involves more than just errands and more to do with violent revenge. But Annie has secrets of her own, and grave concerns about her husband's questionable business ventures. Chased by her own demons from the past, Annie’s intentions are well meant but what will be the ultimate results of her involvement with Edward’s pursuit, and will she be liable for the consequences?

Caught between her husband’s shaky business endeavors and Edward’s escalating anger, Annie is plunged into Budapest’s seedier side, where faith and transformation are no competition for the shocking realities of the past. As these storylines begin to converge, the characters reflect on their choices and what they mean for the future.

The plot moves quickly and Budapest of 1995 is the perfect backdrop with its picturesque location, tragic history, and political complications. From the very first pages the reader is bombarded with an air of danger that seems to permeate almost every scene and conversation.

“Mr. Weiss turned to Leo and the burning in his eyes cooled down. How sudden these changes, she thought. She’s seen this sort of thing at the shelter: emotional squalls in grown men, erratic behavior flip-flopping, the way Leo acted when he needed something. She’d seen it with her brother, Greg, when he started drinking in high school.”

Jessica Keener’s Strangers in Budapest is a powerfully provocative psychological thriller that combines engaging characters with a gripping and darkly atmospheric plot. This novel’s gut wrenching discussion of how our past actions often affect our present is both poignant and thought provoking. Within its pages, Keener masterfully examines sorrow and remorse, dishonesty and loathing, and the ultimate search for unattainable redemption, truth, and love.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review of American Drifter by Heather Graham and Chad Michael Murray

Image of American Drifter: A Thriller

Author: Heather Graham and Chad Michael Murray
Release date: November 14, 2017
Publisher: Forge Books
Pages: 320
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With images of war haunting him daily, U.S. Army veteran River Roulet cannot seem to break free of the past. Awake or asleep, it’s impossible to forget the bombs, the death, and the trembling of the earth. In a desperate attempt to distract himself from these horrors, he flees to Brazil, hoping the rich landscape and vibrant culture of Rio de Janeiro will drown out the nightmares. When he arrives the city is preparing for Carnaval and the celebratory goings-on are everything he hoped they would be, and he seems on the surface to be finally getting his life back together.

This stab at a new life takes an unexpected turn when River meets Natal, an impassioned journalist and free spirit who lives with Tio Amato, a notorious drug lord. Her presence in his life rekindles a curiosity for the world that River thought was lost to him forever. It also catapults him back into the life of danger and violence he so desperately sought to escape.

As their relationship starts to blossoms into something more, River kills one of Tio's men, and they must flee the city, pursued by the drug lord and the Brazilian government. During this time River has to use every trick in his arsenal to stay alive. Will River and Natal escape Brazil and will he ever be free of the memories that haunt him?

In American Drifter, Heather Graham and Chad Michael Murray team up to write an electrifying and suspense filled story that is loaded with plenty of twists and turn. Graham is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of over 100 novels and novellas. Murray is an actor, spokesperson, and former fashion model who has appeared in numerous television series and movies that include One Tree Hill, Agent Carter, Fruitvale Station, and Outlaws and Angels.

American Drifter serves as Murray's debut novel. The plotline and character development which includes love, loss, and redemption is well written but a little stereotypical at times. River and Natal’s love affair appears on the surface to be a little too perfect and over simplified, and because of this it is hard to imagine that this would actually work in real life. While the plot twists are predictable and cliché the novel does a good job of compensating for these minor flaws with its colorful setting and atmosphere.

“Carnaval had been celebrated in one way or another since the eighteenth century . . . always a day to enjoy before the deep thought and abstinence of Lent. . . . There were so many wonders to be seen in Rio. But the greatest wonder of Rio was still to come, and one could feel the pulse of the city that was filled with natural beauty and joy.”

Overall, Graham and Murray have produced a worthwhile novel that is sure to be an instant bestseller. The exotic locale of South America and Carnaval will most certainly be enough to keep the reader’s attention and there’s plenty of romance and suspense to go around. Fans of the thriller/suspense genre will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of The Empty House: A Ghost Story for Christmas by Algernon Blackwood with Illustrations by Seth

Image of The Empty House: A Ghost Story for Christmas (Seth's Christmas Ghost Stories)

Author: Algernon Blackwood (author); Seth (Illustrator)
Release date: October 31, 2017
Pages: 58
Publisher: Biblioasis
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Halloween might seem like the spookiest time of the year but Charles Dickens, M. R. James, Edith Wharton, and other literary greats felt otherwise. They were among the many authors who set their most terrifying stories during the dark and chilly days of Christmastime. Reading a ghost story on Christmas Eve was once as much a part of traditional holiday festivities as turkey, eggnog, mistletoe, and Saint Nick.

“These winter tales did not necessarily explore Christmas themes in any manner. Rather, they were offered as an eerie pleasure to be enjoyed on Christmas Eve with the family, adding a supernatural shiver to the seasonal chill.”

In 2016, Biblioasis, a Canadian independent bookstore and publishing company based in Windsor, Ontario, revived this custom with the release of their first collection of four miniature classic Christmas ghost stories entitled Seth’s Christmas Ghost Stories. Seth is the pen name of Gregory Gallant, a Canadian cartoonist and illustrator best known for his series Palookaville and his mock-autobiographical graphic novel It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken (1996). His illustrations have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, McSweeneys Quarterly, and The New Yorker. He is also Lemony Snicket’s partner for the new Young Readers series All the Wrong Questions.

Biblioasis is continuing their successful tradition in 2017 with another set of Christmas Ghost Stories that are selected and illustrated by Seth. This year’s collection features standalone classic short stories by Algernon Blackwood (“The Empty House,” 1906), E. F. Benson (“How Fear Departed the Long Gallery,” 1912), and W. W. Jacobs (“The Toll House,” 1909).

In “The Empty House,” Aunt Julia is an elderly spinster with an obsession for supernatural research. She has the keys to an alleged haunted house on the square and invites her nephews to accompany her on a midnight investigation. What really happened a hundred years ago when a servant girl fell to her death? Eerily, the old house may not be as empty as it appears.

Opening passage from Algernon Blackwood’s “The Empty House”:

“Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with their being: that they are evil.”

The reading of these types of scary tales during the holiday season was a tradition that dates back to at least the 18th century and was at one time as common as decorating the tree or singing carols.
Biblioasis’ Seth’s Christmas Ghost Stories series has done an outstanding job of attempting to revive this forgotten custom. These charmingly illustrated classic short stories are sold separately and will make the perfect stocking stuffer for any literary enthusiast on your gift buying list who desires a little scare to go along with their holiday revelries.

Review of Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

Image of Three Days and a Life

Author: Pierre Lemaitre
Release date: November 7, 2017
Publisher: Maclehose Press
Pages: 208
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In 1999, in the small provincial town of Beauval, France, 12-year-old Antoine Courtin accidently kills a young boy in the woods near his home. Panicked, he conceals the body and to his relief and ongoing shame, he is never suspected of any connection to the child’s disappearance. But the boy’s death continues to haunt him, shaping his life in unseen ways.

More than a decade later, Antoine is living in Paris, now a young doctor with a fiancée and a promising future. On a rare trip home to the town he hates and fears, Antoine thoughtlessly sleeps with a beautiful young woman from his past. She shows up pregnant at his doorstep in Paris a few months later, insisting that they marry, but Antoine refuses.

Meanwhile, the newly discovered body of Antoine’s childhood victim means that the case has been reopened, and all of his old fears rush back. Then the young woman’s father threatens Antoine with a paternity test—which would almost certainly match the DNA found on the dead child’s body. Will Antoine finally be forced to confront his crime? And what is he prepared to do to keep his secrets buried in the past?

Pierre Lemaitre’s new novel Three Days and a Life is a captivating and disturbing Hitchcockian thriller with plenty of twists and turns. The prolific French novelist and screenwriter is internationally known for crime novels and has won numerous literary awards that include the prestigious Prix Goncourt and Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger awards.

Three Days and a Life is a psychological roller coaster, and discussing this novel without revealing too much of the plot is a very difficult task. “The branch has fallen from his hands. He looks down at the child’s sprawled body. There is something strange about the posture that Antoine cannot quite place, a helplessness . . . What have I done? And what do I do now?”

The crime he committed when he was 12 was a crime of passion. It was in a fit of anger over the death of his beloved dog. After he disposes of the body he is “overcome with the sheer scale of the tragedy” and spends the next few days agonizing over his actions, expecting to be caught. “In a sickening spasm, the tidal wave in his stomach ripped through his whole body, burned through his belly, and exploded into his throat with a jolt that literally lifted him off the bed.”

This never happens, and others are accused and arrested for the crime. Flash forward twelve years and Antoine has attempted to move on with his life, but guilt is always “intensely present and terribly remote.” The narrative returns to the town and explores the ongoing effects of the crime. “His mind dragged him back to the most harrowing period of his life, one that had come to entirely define his childhood. They would find the body. The investigation would be reopened.”

Yet despite Antoine’s clear guilt, Lemaitre is expertly able to generate just enough compassion for him to draw the reader into an uncertain place where even though they might wish to see justice served they don’t want him to feel any more pain. Overall, Lemaitre magnificently manipulates the readers’ compassions and succeeds in dropping several remarkable plot twists that surprisingly help alter the initial events. Three Days and a Life is a heartbreaking and darkly disturbing psychological page-turner written with simplicity and creativity. A thoroughly captivating suspense-filled read that will not disappoint any devoted thriller enthusiast.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review of The Usual Santas

Image of The Usual Santas: A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers

Authors: Peter Lovesey, et al
Publish Date : October 24, 2017
Publisher: Soho Press
Pages: 416
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There's nothing like a good mix of crime and Christmas stories to get you in the holiday mood. Drawing from a remarkably diverse array of notable and celebrated authors, Soho Crime has delivered yet another brilliant Christmas-themed anthology with The Usual Santas. The subject matter differs significantly, ranging from carefree and whimsical to dark and foreboding. This enchanting and easy to read collection features 18 stories from bestselling and award-winning authors such as Martin Limón, Stephanie Barron, Gary Colby, Ed Lin, Mick Herron, and many others.

The foreword by Peter Lovesey, who also contributes to the collection, reminds the reader that crime is regrettably a part of the holiday season, and thus why this time of the year has inspired more short stories than any other theme.

“Crime statistics spike at this time of the year. The seasonal shopping spree provides rich pickings for thieves and fraudsters. Well stocked stores become tempting targets for stick-up men and shoplifters . . . Family feuds are revived by stressed-out, not-so-merry merrymakers . . . All of this is rich material for crime writers.”

For Lovesey, “one of the joys of the festive season is the opportunity to give and receive surprises” and in this anthology “there are shocks in plenty . . . to get your heart thumping.”

In this quirky assemblage of yuletide crime capers we read about nine mall Santas who must find the imposter among them. An elderly lady seeks peace from her murderously loud neighbors at Christmastime. A young woman receives a mysterious invitation to Christmas dinner with a stranger. Niccolò Machiavelli sets out to save an Italian city. Sherlock Holmes’ one-time nemesis, Irene Adler, finds herself in an unexpected tangle in Paris while on a routine espionage assignment. Jane Austen searches for the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough’s stolen diamonds.

These and other escapades will most certainly charm most readers and instantly transport them to exotic and faraway places such as a Korean War POW camp to a Copenhagen refugee squat, from a palatial hotel in 1920s Bombay to a crumbling mansion in Havana, to the busy streets of Thailand.
The Usual Santas is assembled into three parts and begins with “Joy to the World: Various Acts of Kindness at Christmas,” which includes Mick Herron’s titled story “The Usual Santas,” where eight Santas customarily hired by a mega-shopping mall in the suburbs outside of London unexpectedly realize a ninth Santa in their midst. How they expose the imposter adds to the amusement of the story.

Things take a distinctly bleaker and sullen tone in the next segment entitled, “Silent Night: The Darkest of Holiday Noir.” In “Queen of The Hill,” by celebrated novelist Stuart Neville, Campbell Hunter, or Cam the Hun as he’s known on the streets, sets off for a Christmas party at the Northern Ireland house of an infamous but charming drug dealer. This story has some twists and turns in store for its lead character.

In “Blue Memories Start Calling” by Tod Goldberg, the bodies of a missing family are found in a grave near a Granite City ski resort. The grisly discovery just before Christmas and its repercussions cause the County Sheriff to seriously reevaluate his career and life.

In the third section, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus: And Other Holiday Secrets” the stories delve into historical and literary themes. In “The Prince (of Peace),” by Gary Corby, Niccolo Machiavelli saves an Italian city from Cesare Borgia, while pondering the meaning of Christmas. In Clara Black’s “Cabaret Aux Assassins,” Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes’s past archrival, is in over her head in Paris while on her way to a spying mission and Jane Austen searches for a Dutchess’s missing diamonds in “Jane and the Midnight Clear,” by Stephanie Barron.

Overall, The Usual Santas will most certainly melt and captivate the hearts of the most hardened crime fiction reader. There’s plenty of humor and inspiring stories of the holiday season throughout the anthology, but be warned there are also some dark and suspense-filled tales as well. It’s a great book to take on your daily walk or commute to work. Just remember to keep it nearby for those times when you have a few extra minutes to escape. This delightful short story collection will not disappoint and will be the perfect stocking stuffer for any crime noir or mystery fiction fanatic on your holiday gift giving list.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review of Jane Austen: The Banker's Sister by E.J. Clery

Image of Jane Austen: The Banker's Sister

Author: EJ Clery
Publish Date: 10/17/2017
Publisher: Biteback
Pages: 400
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Without a doubt, every fan of English literature has read at least one of Jane Austen's celebrated novels. Her works are inextricably linked to the Regency era of British history. All six of her finished novels were published during this period, making them representative Regency romances.

The Regency era lasted a mere nine years, from February 1811 until January 1820. It was marked by romance, style, and etiquette. In 1810, King George III was taken seriously ill and was declared unable to rule because of mental incapacity. The Regency Act was passed the following year making his son George Prince Regent to rule in his stead. The Regency lasted until George III’s death in 1820 when the Regent became King George IV and was able to rule in his own right.

Although Austen wrote her novels at a young age, her ideas were far beyond her years, which still hold true today. A master at taking conventional life and making it extraordinary, Austen began her most famous piece, Pride and Prejudice, at the early age of 20 which became an instant success almost immediately and continue to be very popular today.

“They were drawn together by temperament. Both of them quick and witty, while his boundless optimism and enthusiasm counterbalanced her occasional tendency to low spirits and irritability…His career was blighted by the bank failure but one could say that Jane’s genius redeemed his losses. We owe her novels to his speculative endeavors.”

Henry Thomas Austen (1771–1850) was Jane’s favorite brother and was the sibling most like her in looks and temperament. He was witty and enthusiastic in whatever he did; the eternal optimist, though success did not always find him. He was most influential in allowing Jane to publish her works. Not only was his home available for her to stay in during her trips to London to work with her publisher, these visits also gave her an insight into society life that she would not otherwise have had, furnishing settings, events, and characters for her novels to come. It was Henry who saw to the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey after her death, and it was Henry who wrote the brief, but loving biographical notice which prefaced these two novels and provided the world with their first glimpse into the life of this author.

When it was announced that Jane Austin would appear on the new ten pound note in 2017, few were aware that a ten pound Austen banknote already exited—issued by her favorite brother. Handsome, clever and enterprising, Henry Austen founded a bank business and charmed his way into the top rank of aristocratic society before going spectacularly bust in the financial crisis of 1816. He left an enduring legacy, however, for it was Henry who supported Jane’s dream of becoming a published author.

 “. . . in all this critical commentary, the figure of Henry Austen, Jane’s most important and direct link with the economic transformations of her time, has been almost entirely absent.”

In E. J. Clery’s new book,  Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, the distinguished literary critic, professor and cultural historian explores new methodology to the study of the celebrated novelist, revealing a tantalizing look into how Austen’s classic works were shaped by her close relationship with her brother, as well as the financial scandals and disasters of the Regency era.

Despite the fact that there are a plethora of biographies on Jane Austen, there are some noteworthy gaps in what is known about her life and works. Clery’s masterful and scholarly interpretation of Austen’s family dynamics, political links, and financial successes and failures provides an interesting and fresh approach to the study of this illustrious novelist’s life and legacy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain

Image of Between a Wolf and a Dog

Author: Georgia Blain
Publish Date: October 10, 2017
Publisher: Scribe
Pages: 272
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On December 9, 2016 Australian writer Georgia Blain died from a brain tumor. Her life contained more than its share of tragedies and disappointments. In her award winning writings she examined the mundane and often over looked moments of everyday life with brilliant style, keen insight and tenderness.

Between a Wolf and a Dog, Blain’s eighth and final novel, takes its title from a French phrase for twilight, (L’heure entre chien et loup), the hazy and often murky hour between day and night which makes seeing and interpreting objects very difficult. In heartbreaking irony, the novel begins with a scene in which Hilary, the mother of Esther and April, reveals that she has cancer and that the tumor has spread to her brain.

Esther is a family therapist with an appointment book that catalogues the anxieties of the middle class: loneliness, relationships, death. She spends her days helping others find happiness, but her own family relationships are tense and frayed. Estranged from both her sister, April, and her ex-husband, Lawrence, Esther wants to fall in love again.

Meanwhile, April is struggling through her own directionless life; Lawrence’s reckless past decisions are catching up with him; and Esther and April’s mother; Hilary, is about to make a choice that will profoundly affect them all. The scenes of the book take place over one seemly ordinary rainy day in Sydney, and poignantly reveal the voices of the troubled and heartbroken, that seem to echo Esther’s own concerns, fears, and hopefulness.

Rendered with haunting and powerful prose this is a stylish, clever and moving novel from a writer at the height of her writing abilities. The experience of reading Between a Wolf and a Dog, though, is larger and more profound than its pages.

“We have to stay ignorant of our blessings. Perhaps we can only carry our good fortune with us if we don’t know that we are doing it—otherwise we would be overwhelmed by anxiety at the possibility of its loss.”

What is significant about this novel is the way it seamlessly balances unhappiness and sorrow, and its inevitable sense of heartbreak with optimism. Blain writes of Hilary’s struggles with her diagnosis and mortality: “. . . loosening herself, trying to unpick the grip of life from her limbs, aware of how quickly time has been pushing her forward, shoving her now, relentless and sure, into this tiny space, the last moments, where she needs more strength than she has ever needed before,” any expectation of serious indifference ceases to exist.

Whittled down to its most elementary points, Between a Wolf and a Dog is basically a novel about love and understanding. It is essentially an homage to the glory of being alive and its message will resonate long after its final pages have been read.

It is a painfully truthful depiction of family and the complexities of interpersonal relationships. But it is also a celebration of what’s good in all of us—our ability to live in the face of everyday worries and disappointments, and to draw power and positivity from its transformative control.

“Like all of her works,” Blain writes, of Hilary’s final film, “it demands trust from the audience, that this seemingly random scatter of images will find a narrative order.” In this way, a work of art is similar to a life. This brilliant and thought provoking novel has thus become an incredibly powerful statement and significant story, which Blain has graciously gifted to all of us.

On a whole, Blain’s entire body of writings are emotionally driven with an honesty that requires the reader to be courageous in the face of pain. They make us profoundly aware of how we experience our own life and how we ought to live. The characters of her novels are often distressed, indecisive, but never faultless. They are, like all of us, inconsistent and flawed. Her narratives never give us the false hope of living happily ever after, but instead, overflow with the understanding that life does not always deliver security and comfort. What Georgia Blain’s works give us is the simple knowledge that life—whether long or short, complex or simple—most certainly always goes on.