Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review: THE LAST LETTER by Susan Pogorzelski

Fifteen-year-old Amelia (“Lia”) Lenelli writes letters that she keeps in a time capsule which resembles a My Little Pony lunchbox, buried two feet under the soil in her father’s flower garden, in a place marked by a turtle statue. The letters are addressed to “Whoever…” Whoever might one day read them. Some day far in the future, perhaps. Someone Lia will never know. So she pours out her heart, talking about the sessions with her doctor, trying to find out why she’s having trouble sleeping. Why she is suddenly doing badly in school. The fatigue, and other symptoms that seem to be robbing her of her life, her friends, and everything that she knew to be normal. They test for every kind of disease and disorder, but the results come back negative. Maybe she’s just making it up, trying to get out of school. But why would she want to feel this way? Perhaps if she can give it a name, she’ll have hope for a cure. Because right now, she’s just surviving. And as hope runs thin, even survival gets hard. If she can just write one last letter, one last way to make her life real, when it seems to be hanging by a thread…

Susan Pogorzelski’s first full-length novel is a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with Lyme Disease, an affliction that is much more widespread that most people realize, and hard to diagnose since it often mimics the symptoms of other diseases. Part of Susan’s reason for writing is to raise awareness of Lyme Disease, but it’s also to help the rest of us understand what it’s like to live with it.

Amelia’s story unfolds in the form of the letters she writes to her unknown reader who, presumably, will one day unearth the time capsule. This letter format gives her the freedom to talk about her life, her hopes, her fears, and her feeling of helplessness as her world crumbles around her. Susan’s prose does an excellent job of conveying the emotional struggle of a high school girl who is forced to watch life from the sidelines, and whose closest relationships are shaken, all because of something outside her control, and seemingly beyond medical treatment.

I found it both sad and fascinating, as I was invited into this young girl’s life, to see through her eyes, and to experience something I hope I never have to go through. Perhaps the fact many of Lia’s experiences reflect Susan’s own is what gives her prose a resonance with reality. It’s hard to read and not feel at least sympathy, if not be affected by this girl’s struggle, and the bravery she shows battling though days when she hasn’t the energy to leave the couch, or when her friends turn their backs on her.

I don’t know how this is “officially” classified, but I would call it literary YA. The focus of the novel is not so much on a plot, but on a person, Lia, and her life over the six years covered by her letters. It’s particularly poignant that this time period covers the events of 9-11. Lia’s reflections on that tragic day, especially in light of her own personal sufferings, make for thoughtful reading as we’re challenged to consider bravery and survival in two very different contexts.

I’d say this book is for an older YA reader (and above, of course), given the emotional depth of the narrative. Susan’s novel is an excellent example of the power of fiction to draw the reader into a reality unlike their own. What she does in this book is more challenging and affecting than any medical description, or textbook definition. By reading Lia’s story, you get to live the disease with her. And it’s a credit to Susan’s skill as a writer that it works to that end. May it have a wide readership, and achieve the purpose for which it was written.

Book Review: THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE by Donna Everhart

Eleven-year-old Dixie is the youngest child of Evie and Charles Dupree, who live in Perry County, Alabama. She and her brother AJ like to climb trees and do the normal things kids in rural towns during the late 1960s would do. But home is not sweet for Dixie. Her mother, a transplant from New Hampshire by marriage, is discontented with Southern living. She pines for her New England roots, and is not afraid to let her husband know. Charles responds to his brash, no-nonsense wife with swigs of Sneaky Pete, never for one moment believing she would actually leave. From a young age, Dixie has learned to lie, mostly to cover for the bruises, evidence of Mama’s temper. And then a fight between Mama and Daddy gets out of control, leading to Daddy’s sudden departure, and the arrival of Uncle Ray, Mama’s brother-in-law. Uncle Ray saves the family from the inevitable financial ruin that would come without a bread-winner in the house. He gladly drives Mama to the store and helps her buy groceries. Mama’s temper softens, and all seems well for the family. But things start to unravel for Dixie when Uncle Ray’s intentions come to light, and her history of lying comes back to haunt her…

I have to say upfront that Donna is a friend of mine, which may incline me to review her debut novel favorably no matter what I really think about it. I’m happy to say there are no mixed motives in this review because a) the book has already received high praise, including an Amazon Pick of the Month for November nod, and making the USA Today Bestsellers list, and b) it really is an excellent novel (which is a relief!–though knowing the quality of Donna’s flash fiction, I was sure she had it in her).

Another caveat to my review is that I’m not particularly well-read in Southern Literature. In fact, I think the only other book I’ve read that would be considered in the same category is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I consider to be the best novel ever written. But to pit DIXIE DUPREE against MOCKINGBIRD would be unfair. Aside from the 1960s Alabama settings, the two novels have little in common either in terms of theme or voice. So my thoughts are strictly concerning the book on its own merits, not compared to similar titles.

With all that said, DIXIE DUPREE is an incredible debut. The novel starts with Dixie handing over her diary as evidence against Uncle Ray, so at the outset we know her diary is important, and Uncle Ray is a character we need to keep an eye on. But that’s really all we know. In the following chapters, Dixie’s story unfolds. It’s the story of a child learning how to lie, covering up for the adults in her life because, regardless how wrong their actions are, she is convinced life would be worse if they weren’t there. Only her diary knows the truth.

Dixie’s education is not pleasant, and it makes for tough reading at times. The saving grace, however, is Donna’s voice. Choosing to tell the story from Dixie’s point of view enables her to convey some very dark and graphic scenes with youthful innocence. This doesn’t at all detract from the seriousness of what’s happening, but it does soften some of the harsh edges that a more adult sensibility would add. Nevertheless, this isn’t a book for the overly sensitive.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Dixie’s voice. It’s clear, distinct, and has the ring of authenticity–exactly how you might imagine a well-read eleven-year-old from Alabama would sound. The other characters are well-defined, with their own quirks and flaws. Brother AJ takes to Uncle Ray in a way only a boy could, oblivious to the things going on with his younger sister. Uncle Ray is charming and helpful, hiding well the dark side that threatens to consume him. Evie, her mother, is a complex mix of anger and devotion. She wants the best for her children, but too easily vents her frustrations on them with devastating results. Charles, her father, is devoted to his family, and doesn’t understand why Evie can’t love his hometown like he does. This leads to much of the conflict between them, and his drinking.

I would recommend DIXIE DUPREE, but, as I said, it’s not for those of a sensitive disposition, though I maintain that Donna deals with the issues in about as sensitive a way as one can. The main character is eleven, but it’s not a book for middle graders. I would rate it R for profanity, and the adult nature of some of the scenes. An easy five Goodreads stars.

Book Review: ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow

Those of you in the US, do you remember the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign in the early 1990s? One very popular commercial featured a history buff who gets a random call from a radio station offering him a prize if he can answer the question, “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?” As I recall, the camera pans to a picture of Aaron Burr, the original bullet in a glass case, the pistols, etc. Unfortunately, the history buff has just stuffed a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth, so his attempts to say “Aaron Burr” are incomprehensible to the radio host. With time running out, he pours himself a glass of milk–but there’s only a drop left in the carton. Eventually the host tells him his time’s up. Dial tone. Caption: “Got milk?”

That was probably the first time I’d heard of Aaron Burr, and at the time I knew precious little about Alexander Hamilton. He was one of the US Founding Fathers, and his face is on the ten dollar bill. That he died in a duel? News to me. Funny commercial, though. As an immigrant to the United States, my knowledge of US history was very basic, as I suppose is true for most non-Americans, and while a lethal squabble between the third Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary was not inconsequential, it wasn’t as big of a deal as, say, the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War.

I’ve always been fascinated with history, so when Ron Chernow’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON appeared on a book club list a number of years ago, I saw an opportunity to fill a gap in my knowledge–and for just $1! Chernow’s 800-page tome ended up gathering dust on a shelf for a few years while I caught up on a lot of other reading. Then, a few months ago, having read a short biography of George Washington, I figured it was about time I dusted off Chernow and dug in. When I discovered the enormously successful hip-hop musical “Hamilton” was based on Chernow’s work, that solidified my resolve. After all, I could hardly see the musical without reading the book first, could I? 🙂

The thought of reading an 800-page book on one of the more obscure (he was at that time, anyway) Founding Fathers sounds daunting. But from the opening chapters, I was hooked. Hamilton’s story is very compelling, and Chernow brings it to life with his absorbing narrative style. Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies, his broken home and questionable parentage, the hurricane that changed his life, and his move to the American Colonies set him apart from the other Founders from the outset. He came to this country with nothing but money raised to send him to college in New York, and his wits. From that, he rose to become Washington’s right-hand man, not only virtually running the government, but creating the government through his co-crafting of the US Constitution, and writing the majority of “The Federalist Papers”–still considered today the authoritative commentary on the Constitution. If that was all Hamilton did, it would be enough. But he also established the first National Bank, and, as Treasury Secretary, built the financial structures that not only made America prosperous, but are still at the foundation of the country’s economy today. He also had a successful law practice, wrote copious amounts of articles, papers, and letters, and raised a large family.

Given all this, I was surprised to learn that Hamilton is not regarded as a national hero. In fact, my wife had the impression that he wasn’t a very nice person. Up until a few years ago, the Treasury was going to replace him on the ten dollar bill with someone more famous and, I suppose, illustrious. As a foreigner reading Hamilton’s story (as related by Chernow), this makes no sense to me. You couldn’t get more of an illustrious American hero than Alexander Hamilton. For a nation founded upon immigrants, surely the immigrant Hamilton is the prime example of the American Dream? But this is one of Chernow’s major strengths: while Hamilton is the hero of his story, he doesn’t shy away from painting a full portrait of the man, warts and all. His life wasn’t scandal-free, and he did cultivate political and personal enemies.

But Chernow also digs a bit into the lives of those around Hamilton, and it seems even while he was alive he had to contend with a bad press. His actions and intentions were constantly misunderstood or misinterpreted, often, it seems, deliberately, by his opponents–particularly Thomas Jefferson. I found it fascinating to read about the other Founders, and get a glimpse at their characters. Jefferson does not come off at all well in this story. He treated Hamilton abysmally, and sunk to levels of character assassination that Hamilton, in good conscience, couldn’t reciprocate. John Adams, while of the same party, had no time for Hamilton, and did little to promote his virtues. Even James Madison, with whom Hamilton had worked on the Constitution, turned against him, siding with Jefferson, and going along with spreading ill-repute of his former colleague. I suppose, given that his detractors long outlived him, it’s no wonder their version of Hamilton got more attention. This, despite Eliza Hamilton’s attempts to manage her husband’s estate, collect his papers, and make the case in his favor.

To sum up, this book is as close to a definitive work on Hamilton that you will find. It’s balanced, and thoroughly researched. Though not originally a historian by training, Chernow has written a scholarly work that ranks with the best of historians. Chernow’s degrees are in English Literature, and he started out as a journalist, and I think this background plays to his advantage with a book like this. For a large historical work, ALEXANDER HAMILTON is immensely readable, at times as gripping as a novel. It’s little wonder Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by this book to write his musical. I felt I had come to know Hamilton so well, I dreaded those final chapters, and that last encounter with Aaron Burr. Chernow’s narrative is heart-wrenching, especially as he argues his conviction that Hamilton shot first, and deliberately aimed high, hitting a tree behind Burr, so there would be no doubt in Burr’s mind that he had no intention of killing him. This was supposed to give Burr time to reflect, and maybe come to terms. Instead, Burr aimed and shot to kill.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American government, and early American history. I also commend it to those who love a great biography. I have read few better. Indeed, this might be one of the best works of history I’ve ever read. A very easy five Goodreads stars.

PS: I still haven’t seen the musical–and given the ticket backlog (not to mention the price), I may as well wait for the movie version!

Book Review: VITA BREVIS by Ruth Downie

Disclaimer: A publicist at Bloomsbury sent this book to me thinking I might enjoy it. She did not ask me to review it, and did not make receipt of the book conditional on any kind of review, good or bad.

VITA BREVIS (Latin for “life is short”) is the seventh book in Ruth Downie’s “Medicus” series, featuring doctor/sleuth Gaius Ruso. As you might have guessed, the series is set in the days of the Roman Empire. This particular story takes place in Rome, the year being 123 A.D. I have not read any of the previous books in the series, so for the first few chapters, not only was I following the story, but I was acclimatizing to the setting, and getting acquainted with the characters. Some, if not most, seem to be regulars. Thankfully, Ruth made this fairly painless, providing sufficient background so a newbie like me could quickly assess how each character stood in relation to our hero, without getting bogged down in re-telling the previous six novels.

It seems our hero, Gaius Ruso, has been in Britannia and has moved his wife and newborn to Rome at the invitation of Accius. Accius is a former legionary tribune, and now head of the Department of Street Cleaning, a man of some stature. Ruso isn’t sure exactly why he is in Rome, until it comes to light that one of the city’s doctors has gone missing. The doctor’s patron, Horatius Balbus, a prominent property owner and developer, employs Ruso to take his place until he should return. Ruso and his family move into the doctor’s house, which has recently acquired a barrel outside the door. To his wife’s consternation, the barrel contains a dead body. Having dead bodies outside your door is not the best way to establish a reputation as a trusted medical practitioner, so Ruso, encouraged by Accius and Balbus, starts to look into where the body came from, and what happened to the previous doctor. In doing so, he opens a can of worms that puts himself and his family in danger from some powerful people.

Regulars to the blog will know that I am a big fan of Gary Corby’s “Athenian Mysteries” series set in Ancient Greece. Like Gary, Ruth manages to drop you into the ancient world without making you feel like you’re reading a textbook. All the details are there, food, smells, customs, and dress, but they are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative. Some of these details were quite fascinating, including the medical remedies Ruso uses, as well as the whole issue of medical ethics, which plays a strong part in this particular story. Ruso and his wife, Tilla, pick up a couple of British slaves, and it’s interesting to see the way they are treated. One of the slaves, Esico, comes across at first as a disgruntled young man who could be a bit of a handful, yet I grew to like him as a character. The fact that Ruso’s wife is also originally from Britannia, and, it seems, a former slave, adds to the family dynamics. She can relate to their new slaves, and, in fact, they provide her with a comforting reminder of home so far away from her homeland. And yet, as the mistress of the house, she needs to remember her station and theirs.

But the story comes first, and I like the way Downie keeps the various plot strands moving, whether it’s the hunt for the missing doctor, or trying to resolve Accius’s love life, or dealing with the neighbors and their wagging tongues, and the followers of Christus and their illegal meetings upstairs. I have to say, I was impressed at the portrayal of Christians in the story. It’s hard to avoid imputing the modern church into a second century context, but Downie handles it well. She doesn’t get into doctrine, but doesn’t avoid the fact that Christians would have argued with each other, just as they do today, while still caring for one another.

I give VITA BREVIS an easy five Goodreads stars. There’s some mild profanity, but nothing that would put it beyond a PG-15, maybe even as low as a PG-13. If you like historical fiction, I’d recommend this book, and possibly the series, though I need to go back read the previous six novels before I can say that with certainty. And given as much as I enjoyed this novel, I will be doing just that.

Book Review: TRICKSTER by Jeff Somers

Lem is a Trickster, scamming his way through life, using his magical abilities to survive. But in Lem’s sub-culture, magic costs, and the payment is blood. Most of Lem’s ilk, mages, use other people’s blood–“bleeders” they call them. Lem’s conscience won’t allow him to do that, so he is constantly cutting himself for the power to play small mind tricks, or to make dollar bills appear to be twenties. Other mages have an entourage of bleeders, and are willing to kill to perform more complex magic. As you might expect, the most powerful magic requires the most blood. And when Lem and his best friend Mags stumble upon a girl in a car trunk, he realizes from the invisible rune tattoos covering her that someone is up to something big. A mage of great ability is planning the spell of her dreams, one that will require the blood of millions…

Ideas are commonplace; everyone has them. How many times have you heard someone say, “That would be a good idea for a book”? Scan the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Each one of those books started life as an idea. For each one, there are countless ideas that never grew beyond a thought. I daresay a lot of those unborn ideas would have made marvelous stories. But ideas alone don’t make good stories. What makes a good novel is a good idea well executed. The idea of using blood to perform magic is clever. It’s both limiting (characters with unlimited power can become boring very quickly), and creates potential drama. It also sets up the premise for a thrilling novel: What if a mage is prepared to commit mass murder on a horrendous scale just to serve her own needs? Thankfully, this idea is in good hands with Jeff Somers.

To begin with, Jeff doesn’t bog the reader down with backstory, or info dump on magic and the mage society. He throws us straight into the action with Lem and Mags, and slowly explains the world through them. The summary I gave above is based on a few chapters worth of story. In the hands of a lesser writer, the reader might be easily confused, having no idea what’s happening. But Jeff manages to engage us with the story, and feed us what we need to know along the way.

The story itself is also well developed. We start with the discovery of a girl in a bathtub, and then to the girl in the trunk. Lem and Mags  find themselves sucked into a situation they would rather not be a part of, with mages way beyond their league. But as every other avenue of help is torn from them, they soon realize it’s up to them to step up and do something, or the consequences will be too devastating to contemplate. Jeff stacks the odds firmly against our young mages, which is good for page-turning drama.

Jeff’s characters are far from black-and-white. Lem has a moral code that won’t allow him to “bleed” anyone but himself. This helps him sleep at night, but he has no qualms about using magic to manipulate and steal from people. Mags is Lem’s best friend. He’s a big guy, well-built, and will use his strength to protect Lem, which is good because his magical skills are fairly rudimentary. The rest of Lem’s world is one where you have to watch your back, even with people you think you know, which is where having a loyal friend like Mags is a rare blessing.

The one drawback to the book for me was the use of profanity. There’s a lot of it, which is not something that appeals to me. But that’s a taste issue. People who don’t mind (or who might even enjoy) a lot of f-words in their stories will enjoy this novel even more than I did–and I enjoyed it a lot. I don’t recall many, if any, sexual references. I would give it an R for the language, though, as I said, people who have less of an issue with that may drop the rating to a PG-15. Definitely a solid four GoodReads stars. I would especially recommend TRICKSTER to those who like urban fantasy.

UPDATE: Jeff informed me via Twitter that TRICKSTER is now Part 1 of the book WE ARE NOT GOOD PEOPLE. Part 2 of the book continues the story. Also, be sure to check out Jeff’s website and blog, and sign up for his newsletter by going HERE.

Book Review: THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS by Gary Corby

Herodotus, an aspiring author, turns up at Nicolaos and Diotima’s house to ask if Nico would escort him to the land of the Pharaohs. It seems he wants to write about the past, and is traveling around collecting stories, and chronicling the customs of all manner of civilizations. Given that Egypt is currently a hotbed of unrest, with the natives rising up against their Persian overlords, Herodotus needs an experienced security detail, and Nico came recommended. When Nico discovers it was Pericles who recommended him, he’s convinced there’s more to this than perhaps even Herodotus knows. Indeed, there’s a lot at stake, namely who is the rightful ruler of Egypt. Nico and Diotima will have to navigate Persians, Spartans, cats, camels, crocodiles, and secret agents to fulfill their duty to Herodotus, and also complete the secret task to which Pericles has assigned them, if they manage to stay alive.

This is the sixth in Gary Corby’s “Athenian Mysteries” series, featuring the husband-and-wife detective team (sorry–that was a spoiler if you’ve only read the first couple of books!) of Nicolaos and Diotima. I’ve reviewed a couple of the other books in the series, and it never ceases to amaze me how well Gary does his homework to get the historical details right, while never sounding like a text book. Naturally, he sometimes plays a little loose with facts for the sake of story, but he knows when he’s doing that, as is evident from his “Author’s Note” at the end.

The main new character in this book is Herodotus, known to students of Ancient History as “the Father of History.” His HISTORIES is not only the earliest history book we know of, but it also contains accounts of historical events that we would know little or nothing of otherwise. Gary weaves some of Herodotus’s stories into the narrative, as young Herodotus interviews everyone he encounters, pummeling people with questions, writing everything down on sheets of papyrus, and perhaps being a little too trusting that what he’s being told is totally factual. I think it’s great that Gary manages to take this shadowy figure from the past, known only by his one book (at least, the only one that has survived to this day), and give him life and character, making him into someone quite likable. After reading this, you might actually want to pick up a copy of THE HISTORIES!

But history aside, the strength of Gary’s books is the storytelling, and he keeps the pace going, with plenty of cliffhangers, and humor. As Nico’s interest is divided among various parties vying for his attention, the plot thickens, but never becomes too tangled. There’s also a very touching death scene, which I don’t recall the like of in any of the other books in the series. I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll say it’s a character I came to like, and was sad to see killed off. It’s beautifully written, and liable to evoke tears–be warned!

Fans of the series will not be disappointed by THE SINGER FROM MEMPHIS. If you’re new to the series, you can certainly read this without having read the others, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to go back and start at the beginning (THE PERICLES COMMISSION was the first). There’s hardly any, if any, profanity, and some very mild sexual allusions. I’d rate it PG15, and give it an easy five GoodReads stars.

Book Review: DEVIL’S DEAL by Terri Lynn Coop

Juliana Martin is a top Dallas attorney working at her father’s law firm. Their very rich clientele pay handsomely for them to make legal problems go away, though Juliana manages to keep at least arm’s length from the worst dirt in her third floor office. Eventually it all gets too much for her, but the day she decides to tell her father she’s had enough of shady deals and shadier clients, the Feds pay a visit. Charged for a murder he didn’t commit, Juliana’s father faces the death penalty. The only offer on the table is a devil’s deal: for Juliana to come out of hiding and give up one of her father’s biggest clients, or watch her father die, and possibly face the same fate herself.

DEVIL’S DEAL is Terri Lynn Coop’s debut novel, and the first in a series featuring the smart, tough Texan lawyer, Juliana Martin. I found this a very easy read, but not in the sense of “simple” or “childish.” There are plenty of plot twists, and some quite uncomfortable scenes. By “easy” I mean the story doesn’t drag, the characters are relatable, and the voice is punchy and down-to-earth. Short chapters provide plenty of cliffhangers, some minor, but some quite significant.

The first part of the book takes Juliana from the big city to a small town, where she agrees to tie up loose ends in her late Uncle Jimmy’s legal practice while she tries to stay under the radar. Juliana is clearly not comfortable with the RV and casserole set, but does her best to ingratiate herself, which makes for fun reading. Things don’t go to plan, however, and Juliana finds herself entangled with the authorities, one of whom is handsome Federal agent Ethan Price. When trust leads to betrayal, she is forced to call in favors from some of her father’s choicest clients. The things we learn and the people we meet along the way all play into the larger plot, so nothing’s throw-away, as is the case with all good mysteries.

If you enjoy legal thrillers and mysteries, you’ll enjoy DEVIL’S DEAL. Juliana Martin comes across as no-nonsense, but not without sensitivity. Terri has managed to create a character who’s not just James Bond in a skirt. She can use firearms, and knows a fair few fight moves, but while she can play like a guy, she hasn’t lost her femininity. That’s a hard balance to achieve.

There’s profanity and violence, so I would definitely rate it R. There are romantic scenes–some a little on the steamy side–but I don’t recall anything sexually explicit. A solid four Goodreads stars.

Book Review: THE EX by Alafair Burke

Olivia Randall is a top New York defense attorney who is drawn to defend a man accused of a triple homicide. But this is no ordinary case. The accused, Jack Harris, is considered a hero, whose wife was one of a number of people gunned down in a seemingly random act of violence. The killer escaped justice, despite Jack’s best efforts to have him put away. And now the killer’s father is among the three dead in what the prosecutors believe to be an act of revenge. To add another twist, Jack and Olivia were engaged twenty years previously, and both parties have unresolved issues. Can Olivia provide an objective defense, or are her feelings clouding her judgment? And is mild-mannered Jack a murderer, or the victim of an elaborate set-up?

Note: This review is of an Advanced Reader’s Edition I received at Bouchercon. I met the author and she signed my book, but I wasn’t asked to review it–indeed, there were no conditions attached to my receipt of this book.

This is the first Alafair Burke novel I have read, despite the fact Janet Reid has been promoting her books for years, and I usually enjoy the books Janet pushes. It was certainly a change of pace from the books I’ve been reading lately. The blurb on the back calls it a “novel of suspense,” and I suppose it is in that Alafair keeps you guessing all along as to the innocence or guilt of Jack Harris. But it is very much a legal suspense novel, along the line of some of the John Grisham I’ve read, only better. Especially the last Grisham novel I tried–way too much of a social/political agenda. Alafair avoids all that and simply buckles down and tells the story. And she tells it well.

Alafair’s characters have depth, and are not easily put into “good guy” or “bad guy” categories. Olivia is haunted by feelings of guilt over the way she treated Jack when they were together, and is not above using less-than-ethical methods to get what she needs for her case. Jack seems like the humble hero, the quiet victim, but along the way we get hints of a darker side to his character that gives even his most loyal friends pause. There are prostitutes, drug addicts, and others riding the hard edges of life that play into the story, all of whom have their own stories. I appreciated Alafair’s eye (and ear) for people, treating them more than just pawns in her narrative, but as characters with lives.

The story itself was engrossing. There are large sections devoted to backstory, which is normally not a good thing. However, a lot of what goes on in THE EX is predicated on that backstory, so it needs to come out somehow. Alafair manages to make it part of the narrative without losing the reader’s attention, and without making the story drag. While there are no fight scenes, car chases, gun battles, or violent struggles to the death, there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.

There are no sex scenes, some profanity, and not really any violence aside from the murders, and even there Alafair doesn’t go into any graphic descriptions. I would comfortably rate it a PG-15, and give it four Goodreads stars. To sum up, if you’re looking for a good detective story–especially one with a strong legal angle–then THE EX is for you.

THE EX is scheduled for release in January, 2016.

Book Review: WATCHED by CJ Lyons

For the last four years, sixteen-year-old Jesse Alexander has lived in fear. A cyber-stalker called “King” has already ruined his life, and the lives of many other kids, and now he has control of Jesse. Unless he submits to King’s demands, and the demands of King’s clients, terrible things could happen, not only to Jesse, but to his Mom and little sister. Of course, they have no clue why Jesse has to leave his laptop on every night, or why he must answer his phone, even if it goes off in the middle of a test. Jesse feels trapped, owned by King, locked into a life of humiliation and slavery with no way out. Until the a brown envelope arrives for him containing a phone and a note that simply says: “I can help.”

Yes, this is unusual–two book reviews in as many weeks. And this is not a book I thought I’d be raving about. King is the vilest kind of cyber-stalker: one who preys on children–kids who, in a moment of foolish carelessness, send pictures to friends that they ought not to have sent, or make a video they believe will only be seen by a few. Kids who can be controlled by threats to make the pictures public, or kids who can be easily manipulated by threats to their family if they don’t comply with King’s wishes.

I thought this would be an uncomfortable read, and it was. But Lyons makes it compelling by focusing on the kids. It’s their story, not King’s. This is about their fears, their desires, and their heroism. There are two main characters, Jesse and the person who sent the phone. CJ’s narrative switches between the two with Jesse’s story in the first person, and phone-sender’s in the third. I think there’s more to this than simply a device to help the reader keep track of who’s story we’re reading. Jesse’s situation is very personal and on-going; the threat to him is not just from without, but it’s from within, too. Phone-sender, on the other hand, has been through the ordeal, with the damage already done. But phone-sender is no less trapped, and is as much reaching out for help as Jesse. This a clever use of perspective to add to their characters.

The story is a thriller, so there are lots of moments of suspense. Despite the nature of the story, Lyons avoids any explicit discussion of what King demands of Jesse (or any of his other victims). Instead, you get the idea through implication, which is emotionally much more powerful than if she had spelled things out. The story is mostly about Jesse and phone-sender’s attempt to put an end to King, and free those who, like Jesse, are still trapped.

There’s a lot of depth and layers to this story that I’m not going into because I don’t want to spoil it. But if you’re a teen or a parent, this is a book you really ought to read. There’s some profanity, and, of course, the subject matter is a little mature for young teens. But with so many of our kids online, using social media, chat rooms, sending pictures, and so on, we need stories like this to help them develop wiser heads than we, as parents, ever wanted to think they would need. Books like this shouldn’t be necessary, but sadly they are. And I commend CJ for taking on this subject and doing it in way that is extremely readable, highly engaging, and very thought-provoking. An easy five Goodreads stars.

Book Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

It’s the 1950s, and Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch is visiting home from New York. It’s been a few years since she was last in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama–not since the death of her brother, Jem. As she reacquaints herself with the rural life she knew so well as a child, she finds the pace and attitudes of home to be in stark contrast to that of the big city. But the joy of being reunited with her father, Atticus, and of rekindling old friendships is marred by dark truths she uncovers as Maycomb struggles to come to terms with the burgeoning civil rights movement.

GO SET A WATCHMAN is of interest if only for giving us a snapshot of the rural South in the 1950s. The fact that people of high moral standard were able to justify racist attitudes is something hard for us to comprehend in the 21st century, and I appreciate the insight this book gives into that mindset. Lee’s writing in this story is good, though not exceptional. However, my main criticism of the book is that it’s very thin on story. We travel with Jean Louise as she makes her discoveries, and aside from a few incidents, the things she discovers about people she thought she knew are really the only twists in the story. I give it four stars on the strength of the writing, but it’s only barely four stars. There is some mild profanity for which I’d rate it PG-13.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now!

The above review took the book on its own merit, which I think is only fair. Published more than 50 years after Harper Lee’s celebrated debut, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the temptation is to consider GO SET A WATCHMAN in comparison to TKaM. However, I wanted to evaluate the book on its own first. Now let’s consider it in light of the bigger picture.

Most already know the story behind the story, that WATCHMAN was the novel Lee originally wrote but set aside to write MOCKINGBIRD. The manuscript of WATCHMAN was recently re-discovered and considered worthy of publication as, perhaps, the world’s most long-awaited sequel. That is, of course, the version of events the publisher would like us to believe, and in all candor, there’s not any solid evidence to contradict that story. However, it has been said that Lee did not give consent to the publication of WATCHMAN, and it was only after her estate changed hands in recent years that making this book available was even considered. Lee is an elderly woman, dependent on others for her care, so there is question as to how much say she could have had in the publication of the novel. I will say this, if this is indeed the first draft of TKaM, I’m impressed. My first drafts are not this good, and I’ve read a lot of final published books a whole lot worse. That also factored in my four-star rating.

However, if it’s true that Lee did not want this book published, I say it should never have been released and marketed the way it was. Perhaps a more appropriate release would have been as a historical document published posthumously. But it really isn’t fair to set it alongside TKaM as if it’s a sequel. Before writing this review, I re-read TKaM to be sure I’m not being overly harsh. I’m not. TKaM is a vastly superior work. There’s real drama, tension, cliff-hangers, great dialog, voice, and a truly absorbing story. In the past I’ve referred to TKaM as possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. After a second reading, I stand by that assessment. GSaW is a shadow of the work that it produced.

Reading the two books side-by-side, it’s easier to discern some of the editorial choices made. The most obvious is the switch from third person to first person. Scout’s voice is part of what makes TKaM so endearing, and that’s something veiled by GSaW’s close third-person perspective. We also see in GSaW stories from Scout’s past that are woven into the narrative of TKaM. For example, early in GSaW, Lee gives us a potted history of Maycomb County. This is transformed into the narrative behind Mrs. Merriweather’s Halloween pageant celebrating Maycomb, as related to us by Scout near the end of TKaM. And some of the best parts of GSaW are the flashbacks to the 1930s. It’s clear now why the flashbacks became the novel; the characters are far more interesting as children, and the child’s point of view is far more engaging for this story. Whoever told Lee to focus the story in the 1930s (it has been suggested this was Lee’s friend, Truman Capote) did American literature a great service.

Finally, I want to address the big story of GSaW: the revelation that “Atticus Finch was a racist.” This makes for a shocking headline, but the truth is a bit more nuanced than that. Does the Atticus Finch in GSaW hold to a view of non-whites that is unacceptable? Certainly. But did he hold the same views as many of his contemporaries? Not quite. In GSaW, Atticus tries to walk a line between upholding segregation, but treating black people as people, with the same right to legal representation, and a fair trial. Equal but separate, which (as Scout rightly points out) isn’t really equality. However, there’s no hate or malice in Atticus’s view. It certainly seems the case that Atticus’s views became a lot more sympathetic in TKaM, especially the way he’s willing to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in terms of race relations and race integration (notice his relaxed attitude toward Scout and Jem going to Calpurnia’s church, for example). But the story in GSaW is more about Scout learning to stand up for her own opinions even if they disagree with her father’s. This, more than Atticus’s racism, appears to be what’s important to that novel.

Is GO SET A WATCHMAN a necessary follow-up to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? No, not by a long shot. In fact, I don’t see what purpose its publication serves other than to make money for the publisher. Lee originally set aside GSaW to write TKaM, which tells me she considered TKaM the book she intended to write. So, while GSaW is not a bad book in itself, I certainly wouldn’t consider it necessary reading. In fact, if you’ve never read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, buy a copy of that instead.

That’s what I think. What are your thoughts about GO SET A WATCHMAN?