NetGalley Top Reviewer

NetGalley Top Reviewer
NetGalley Top Reviewer

Sunday, October 20, 2013

After Her by Joyce Maynard

3.0 out of 5 stars "Nothing bad will happen to you. Or maybe something will. And you'll survive it." 
Rachel Torricelli is 14 years old during the summer of 1979 when her beloved Mount Tamalpais and surrounding park area (north of San Francisco) is terrorized by a serial killer known as the Sunset Strangler. Rachel and her sister Patty, mostly unsupervised since their parents divorced, had been roaming the park in their Marin Country backyard for years when their father, Detective Anthony Torricelli, Chief of Homicide, is assigned to lead the investigation.

As the summer passes and the murder toll grows, Rachel and Patty, with an unusually close bond and vivid imaginations, begin their own quest to try to help their mostly absent and case-obsessed father. With their mother secreted in her room reading library books, and with nothing but time on their hands, the curious sisters have a lot of freedom and what they crave most seems to be attention. Rachel, suddenly in demand by the popular kids from school because of her father's connection to the case, finds herself making up lurid details to appease their curiosity. Patty, abandoned by the older sister whom she has always followed, turns to basketball to find her voice. Things take a sudden turn when the girls have an encounter on the mountain that brings them face-to-face with the killer.

I'm of two minds about this novel. For some reason, I found it hard to put down, though it was not actually very thrilling or suspenseful. Despite the threat of the serial killer in their neighborhood, the sisters are reckless and, lacking any type of adult supervision, cook up some preposterous schemes and engage in some dangerous sleuthing. I didn't find Rachel to be a compelling narrator and the depiction of her prepubescent self was tedious and repetitive at times. Patty is her sidekick. The nature of their close bond and relationship explains some of their behavior and I found their activities interesting at times, though very odd. Rachel has some sort of strange visions that require effort to find credible, and it is this package of naivete and weirdness that ultimately makes the duo not taken seriously when it counted.

The author writes that this novel has been inspired by a true story and spent a lot of time and effort in research. So, this story is not so much murder mystery, but more about the toll that being connected to the case took on this family. 
Amazon Vine ARC.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Room Beyond by Stephanie Elmas

"In our world things appear and disappear about us all the time."

Haunting, time-bending gothic ghost story tells the story of an evil man's legacy and its effects on a modern day family at 36 Marguerite Avenue in Kensington.

Present day: Serena arrives at the beautiful mansion on Marguerite Avenue to interview for a position as a live-in nanny to Beth, the 4-year-old granddaughter of Arabella and Edward Hartreve. Beth's teen mother, Eva, also lives in the house along with several other interesting characters. The job is given to Serena on the spot and on her first day of work she's shown to her beautiful turret room "like a nest perched amidst London's rooftops" that she falls in love with immediately. Serena is perplexed as she begins to live with the strange family in that mansion -- one thing she notices right away, it seems there is an oddity with the house numbering. House 32 is occupied by the Herbert family and 36 by the Hartreves. House 34 is missing. There are some other quite strange goings on inside house 34 and at another unusual family home -- Druid Manor -- where the Hartreves go for Christmas. Does Serena sense things that others do not see? What strange connections exist between the family and whatever dark past they all share.

1892: Miranda and Tristan Whitestone live at 34 Marguerite Avenue. Imprisoned and almost invisible in a miserable marriage to a man she adores, Miranda watches as her husband takes the neighbor from 36, Mrs. Lucinda Eden, as his most recent lover. Events transpire that turn Miranda's world into a nightmare and she leaves her home and life behind, escaping with damaged cargo in the dead of night.

This twisted tale shifts between those two time periods weaving together a story of evil and destruction that centers on Marguerite Avenue. Pervasive themes of loneliness and pain linger throughout as the reader is drawn into the lives of the families that lived on this street over a hundred years apart. Serena is lured into a shadow world that exists within the houses on that street and is tormented by unanswerable questions about who these people are, what happened there, and what they want from her.

Recommended for anyone who loves a mystery with supernatural elements.

Thank you to NetGalley and the author for the ebook ARC to review.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

4.0 out of 5 stars - Rollercoaster ride!

What a thrilling novel -- full of suspense and ever-changing direction as Hannah tries to figure out if her loving husband, the wealthy and handsome Mark Reilly, is telling her the truth. And, if not, what secrets is he hiding?

Hannah waits for Mark at Heathrow; he's supposed to return from a business trip to New York. When he's a no-show, she tries to call and email him and receives no response. Worried that something untoward has happened and told that he's not registered at his usual hotel, Hannah contacts colleagues at his company who are perplexed to hear that Mark has not taken her on a surprise trip to Rome. Initially only worried about his safety, she becomes suspicious and more concerned when she finds disturbing financial information and discovers that a woman has been calling him at work. Is this evidence of an extramarital affair or something far more sinister? The plot thickens when Hannah discovers that Mark has told her some HUGE LIES as well as left out some particularly horrendous information about his background and family.

I was totally glued to the pages as I raced through this novel in the space of an evening. The twists and turns the narrative takes as Hannah is led first one way and then another makes the novel completely captivating. I could hardly wait to get to the end of the mystery when all was finally revealed.

If you've been waiting for another novel that is constantly leaving you wondering what is going to happen next, this is for you. Highly recommended for suspense thriller fans!

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for the ebook ARC to review.

Juffie Kane by Beverly Swerling

4.0 out of 5 stars Wholly entertaining!
This novel has it all! From the very first, Juffie Kane is unconventional and dramatic. Raised by parents with connections to la cosa nostra, the beautiful little girl wants for nothing. Juffie aspires to the Broadway stage and ultimately secures her stardom by accruing a debt with the mob that affects her life in many ways.

Ordinarily I have a preference for historical fiction and thriller/suspense/mystery novels. Though I would say this book has a lot of romance, there are so many other elements and side stories that it really kept my interest. Though the focus is primarily on Juffie and the highs and lows of her acting career, there are MANY other events that occur involving her, her best friend Karen, and a host of other interesting characters that created some incredible depth to the story set in the 1940s and 1950s. From elegant New York to seedy Las Vegas, the narrative goes in some very unexpected directions and had me turning the pages wanting to see how it all turned out. What price does Juffie pay to make her dreams come true?

The reader should expect to experience some big highs and lows along with Juffie and the cast of this novel which has been updated and is being re-released in ebook form after first being published in 1990. I think you'll enjoy it!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

3.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing report examines moral and ethical quandaries during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath...
This nonfiction account of life and death at Memorial Hospital during the 5 days following the natural disaster is divided into two main sections. The first deals with the events at the hospital and the second probes the investigative and legal proceedings involving staff at the hospital. I found the account compelling and extremely disquieting as the horrors of trying to care for extremely sick patients in those dire circumstances was recounted. I experienced many emotions while reading this very extensively researched book, but chief among them was a voice in my head that kept repeating - DON'T JUDGE. I was not there, I did not see or hear or smell the humanity in that hospital. I was not called upon to serve during the horrendous 5 days that those people were all trapped in that hospital without so many of the necessary things needed to provide patient care. When basic needs cannot be met, when staff is confused and exhausted, when the demands of the job surpass every bit of spiritual, mental and physical capacity the health care provider has -- what then? Examining the situation after the fact is much easier than dealing with an evolving life and death drama. Even with training, it would be difficult to be fully prepared to deal with everything that happened in Memorial Hospital over that 5 day period. I am glad I don't have to try to defend or condemn anyone for their actions, or lack thereof, because I imagine there are many who bear the burden of guilt for the way and the why of it.

Each person who reads this, and I recommend that you do, will take away his or her own analysis and assessment of what happened there and who was responsible. Collectively there is a lot of blame to go around, but individuals will always need to examine their own consciences and follow legal and societal guidelines whenever moral and ethical questions arise.

This would make a great book for a book club, but more so, I hope it will provide a touchstone for good debate on what constitutes ordinary vs extraordinary means, how does one assess the value of a life, and what explicit boundaries need to be firmly put in place.

3.5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for the ebook ARC to review.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith

4.0 out of 5 stars --  Fascinating and poignantly drawn picture of life and times at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina during the 1930s.,
Evalina Toussaint is thirteen when she is admitted to this hospital, known for its cutting edge treatment of the more wealthy mentally ill, after her mother -- the mistress of a rich lover -- dies in New Orleans.

Evalina experiences her coming of age in this lovely place under the tutelage of the well-known Dr. and Mrs. Carroll where she also meets the infamous and mercurial Zelda Fitzgerald who undergoes multiple treatments in the ensuing years. Evalina becomes a piano protege of Mrs. Carroll and it is her music that gives her strength, comforts and sustains her during many difficult times. Highland Hospital becomes her true home and its staff and patients her family as the years go by.

The novel is about one young woman's search for her own sanity, identity and independence as much as it is about life and mental illness during this time in history. Well researched historical details blend fact with fiction creating a story and memorable characters that I can't stop thinking about.

The focus of this well-written story is not on either Zelda Fitzgerald or the fire of 1948 that kills nine of the patients at Highland Hospital, but about the nature and cycle of mental health and the continuum of wellness. Some aspects of the treatment of those judged mentally ill may seem both bizarre and/or inhumane, and the accepted practices then no longer used (lobotomy, insulin shock, etc.) as more becomes known about what works or not. But, truly, as one character so aptly states about clinical depression, "Nobody understands it..."

I really liked this book and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in what life at an upscale mental institution in the 1930s might have been like. Keep in mind that if you are looking for biographical detail about Zelda Fitzgerald, this is not the book for you. She is an incidental and side character in this work as Evalina Toussaint is the fictional woman whose story is told within.

Thank you to NetGalley and Algonquin Books for the ebook ARC to review.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

4.0 out of 5 stars -- This fictional novel based on historical events (1830s) asks the question -- did Letitia Landon Maclean die of an unintentional or deliberate overdose of prussic acid, or was she murdered?

Be forewarned, the definitive answer is not here, but there are loads of clues and hints of what may have happened. The story of Letitia's background -- she's a relatively well-known poetess in London, and arrival in Gold Coast, Africa, with her new husband Governor George Maclean, is told in several different voices. Each character, including Letty herself, alludes to events and sinister goings on that might have led up to Letty's sudden death only 8 weeks after arriving.

It was quite common for foreigners to die quickly on Cape Coast, but Letty did not contract any of the usual suspect diseases such as dysentery, malaria or bites from poisonous snakes and insects. An empty medicine bottle of "cyanide" was found clutched in her hand -- but no one will admit to prescribing or mixing that formula for her.

This is an intriguing mystery set in a country that was completely unfamiliar to Europeans who had used the port as a loading point for the slave trade before abolition. The "local customs" required the ability of those who came there to adapt rapidly even as they tried to change the inhabitants' religion and culture to be "more British" and Christian. The history of Gold Coast Castle and the events that led up to Letty's death were interesting though the cause or reason for her actual demise is still speculative. Given that there was no autopsy and that burial occurred quite quickly, it's likely the questions will never be answered.

If you enjoy mystery and historical fiction that centers on a true story, you'll enjoy this novel.

Thank you to NetGalley and Dundurn for the ebook ARC to review.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

3.5 out of 5 stars - Fast-paced and chilling, this is the story of a middle-aged woman discovering memories that make her feel that her whole life is a lie. 

Marta Bjornstad has been married to Hector for a very long time, and, feeling the pangs of an empty nest, stops taking the pills that her husband has always provided for her "to help her feel better."  As the amnesic effect of the medication wanes, Marta experiences  snippets and fragments of people and scenes that both confuse and frighten her. She is not sure if these are memories or hallucinations. Is she really mad and delusional -- or a victim?

As the blurb says, reminiscent of the books, "Room" and "Before I Go to Sleep," the narrative takes the reader in and out of present and past and along on Marta's frantic attempts to piece together what has happened to her. Despite the sympathetic attempts husband and son make to comfort and reassure her, Marta feels that her past has been hidden from her and that terrible things have been concealed.

You'll hold your breath as you race to the end of this novel. The writing is tight, nuanced, and vague at times so you as the reader will have to form many of of the final conclusions as to what really happened.

A very enjoyable read.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the ebook ARC to review.