NetGalley Top Reviewer

NetGalley Top Reviewer
NetGalley Top Reviewer

Monday, August 25, 2014

4.0 out of 5 stars -- Engrossing and well documented epic of the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty

Although a novel, this story of the Nehru-Gandhi family and their dominance of India's fledgling democratic nation as leaders of the Congress Party, is told from the point of view of Sonia Gandhi as she witnesses tumultuous events in history from the vantage point of marrying into the political powerhouse and being the daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In an almost continuous "reign" with only a few misses, Mahatma Gandhi's ideology lives on through the decades as his friend Nehru and Nehru's daughter, Indira, her sons Sangay and Rajiv, and ultimately her daughter-in law passionately steer India into the 21st century and beyond. With the goal of independence through non-violence, the family firmly believes in the three pillars of India -- "democracy, secularism and the rule of law." They must contend with all manner of challenges to their philosophy as religious nationalism and communism threaten to divide the nation and lead to unending civil war.

Since India is a nation of many cultures, languages and religions, it proves a daunting task of the family to unite the country and achieve common goals for the good of all the people. Unrest and corrupt government practices threaten the stability of the fragile new nation and the Gandhi family struggles to remain true to the original values of "integrity, tolerance, contempt for money, and the cult of service to others." Of particular interest are the poorest people.

The transformation of Sonia Maino Gandhi from shy Italian schoolgirl to powerful Indian politician is filled with sacrifice and deep personal pain as she faced the fanatically motivated assassinations of her mother-in-law and her husband. Resisting entry into public life and deeply private, Sonia must make a decision that puts her own dreams aside to choose what is best for the nation. In a country with more differences than similarities, Sonia -- as did Indira and then Rajiv -- must try to find solutions to problems faced by those who seek power to maintain the status quo and to circumvent the democratic process or others who encourage rebellion. Blood is shed in the name of religion as the Hindu and Moslem citizens persecute each other. It's a time of huge political upheaval and strife and the actions taken by Indira, Rajiv and others take Sonia to a position she never wanted. Sonia witnesses the toll of political life on those she loves, but is reminded again and again that she did not choose her life, it chose her.

I enjoyed this fascinating glimpse into the world of the Gandhi family and the history lessons of India. The author writes an extremely graphic picture of India, its inhabitants, and the land itself. I'd recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction as this was very well researched and cited though the author was unable to talk with any member of the family. I'll definitely investigate some of the additional works included in the bibliography.

Thank you to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for the e-book ARC to review. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar

4.0 out of 5 stars -- Well-paced psychological thriller that kept me glued to the pages!

Hannah and Will Riley vacate busy London and move to Suffolk to renovate a large old house there in preparation for a social worker's (Barbara) visit in just 2 weeks. They hope to be approved as adoptive parents since they've been unsuccessful at having their own despite years of treatment. When they arrive on the weekend, they find that Tornley Hall is in worse shape than they imagined and Hannah sets off in a frenzy of painting and decorating to get the place in shape. Will, a musician, eager to get back to work in London -- and the reader senses he's a bit resentful after all -- helps half-hardheartedly and then leaves early Monday morning while Hannah, who used to be a crusading rights advocate who jetted all over the world, is left on her own in this quiet, isolated countryside. Within hours, Tornley is blanketed in a freak snowstorm, the boiler goes out, and Hannah finds she has no internet WiFi nor can her cell phone get any bars for service. In addition, Will is stranded in London and can't get home for days. Things don't seem to be going too well in Hannah and Will's relationship.

Hannah is alone without heat, hot water and human contact. The house is creepy and the reader feels a sense of menace when household items are moved around, doors are locked, keys can't be found, and other unusual things happen. Hannah feels that someone is watching her. In an attempt to continue her frantic pace of work, she tries to engage the locals to help out at Tornley Hall and finds that they are very strange indeed. Things become more tense as the day of Barbara's visit comes near and suddenly, Hannah is fearing for her life as she tries to solve a decades old mystery and right a serious wrong.

Enjoyed this more than I thought I would! Recommended to anyone who loves stories about creepy things going on in old houses and small towns. Bet you can't wait to get to know these neighbors!

Thank you to NetGalley and Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the e-book ARC to review.

Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz

2.0 out of 5 stars Adventure in the wild gone wrong!, August 20, 2014
Depressed and recently divorced from her cheating husband, Eve Hardaway leaves the comfort and familiarity of home behind to head off to Oaxaca in Mexico and some whitewater rafting and other activities in the isolated jungle and mountain area there. She accidentally gets herself involved in a mystery -- it seems that a woman who was recently a guest at the resort, and who had stayed in Eve's same assigned hut, left a few things behind in the room when she packed up and left -- including a camera with some strange pictures of a machete-throwing man on it that Eve also manages to find on the jungle floor when she momentarily leaves her fellow tour members behind while wandering off the trail. All these items belonged to Theresa Hamilton and the owners of the resort aren't forthcoming and merely say that she left in a hurry.

I could barely force myself to finish this book and must say it didn't hit the mark as a thriller for me. The unbelievable peril and survival in the jungles of Mexico theme stretched my credulity way too far. It was assumed from the start that our plucky, nearly Rambo-like heroine, Eve, a nurse and single mother, would survive and outwit the bad guy but the sheer relentless description of how she managed this almost made me scream and throw the book at the wall. There were a lot of predictable grisly deaths of humans and animals. Antipathy too strong? The villain here was so ridiculously evil and the political ramblings so biased and contrived that I could barely get past it. This was definitely not what I was expecting when I read the synopsis.

Perhaps other readers will love this adventure in the wild gone wrong, but it definitely did not appeal to me. I've read other titles by this author and may give him another try.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for the e-book ARC to review.

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

4.0 out of 5 stars -- I had no idea when I began reading this book that there was a BBC television series that I could watch! So, I had no preconceptions other than the basic plot premise and the fact that the novel is in the police procedural category and set in a small British West Bay town on the coast. The landscape of Dorset provides the cliffs, beach and sea that are extremely important aspects of the drama played out there when the body of 11 year old Danny Latimer is found one morning in summer season. The town in the book is known as Broadchurch.

DS Ellie Miller is recently returned to work from a family holiday when she is rudely denied an expected promotion and passed over for Detective Inspector by another whose reputation precedes him -- DI Alec Hardy. In a matter of moments, still reeling after that disappointment, she is thrust into a murder investigation when the call comes to the police station about Danny's body. Ellie is shaken because Danny is her son's best friend and the son of her own girlfriend, Beth. The Latimers and Millers were a tight group and the town is close knit. Without any immediate suspects or clues, Ellie can't believe that anyone she knows could have committed this murder. The extremely well plotted investigation proceeds from there and involves many of the townspeople whose secrets and lies are unearthed slowly but surely. Red herrings are dangled as first one and then another comes under the scrutiny of DI Hardy and DS Miller. An unlikely partnership between personality and style on the opposite spectrum, Hardy and Miller are at odds with each other and with those whom they interrogate as they search for answers.

The characters are complex and well drawn; the narrative shifts in point of view revealing tantalizing snippets and details as the plot thickens. I thought every one was guilty -- and they were -- of something. Who knew the neighbors as well as they thought they did?

I can see where this would be a great show and I plan to get the DVDs and watch it as soon as possible. I really enjoyed the novel and the ending was perfect given the somber tone of the book. I'd like to read other books by this author. I will definitely be recommending this novelization to any who enjoy British crime novels.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press (Minotaur Books) for the e-book ARC to review. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Into Thin Air by Caroline Leavitt

3.0 out of 5 stars -- "Why didn't people belong to the ones who tried to love them?"

This is a story that triggers many emotions, but I found it hard to like the book because I despised nearly all of the characters or felt so sorry for a couple of them that I almost stopped reading it several times! Since I have a personal rule to finish what I start, I kept going only to find that mostly I was angry and frustrated with this whole sorry saga.

Lee leaves her newly delivered baby and her husband, Jim -- vanishing without a trace. Stunned and deeply in love with Lee, he frantically searches for her, going on long car rides and following any sighting or lead until he finally gives up and tries to create a stable home for his daughter. Meanwhile, Lee is on the road until she sets up with a fake name in a new place. What was she running from?

I'm not sure if we're meant to empathize with Lee or hate her. I felt the latter. Jim is a besotted fool and his obsession annoyed me. I couldn't see where any person would want a relationship with either of them. I guess it's all the question of forgiveness and the notions of mistakes and redemption.

I've read a couple of this author's other books and have liked them so perhaps this was the odd one that didn't ring true for me -- perhaps my compassion button was turned off. The messy, fractured family tale told here did not find that sympathetic or understanding reader in me and ultimately, I didn't care what happened to Lee at all nor will I wonder how things eventually turned out for Jim, Lila and Joanna.

I have a couple of other titles by Caroline Leavitt on my shelf and will read them. I hope for a return to the magic of complex and realistic domestic fiction that I'd found previously in her work. I noticed that this book was published in 1993 so perhaps that is part of it as it somehow did seem dated.

Thank you to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for this e-book ARC to review. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Dancer and the Raja by Javier Moro

5.0 out of 5 stars -- Sumptuous and fascinating historical fiction that is based on the life and times of a Spanish girl named Ana (Anita) Delgado Briones, who, at 17, left her family and everything familiar behind and traveled to India to wed His Highness Raja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. She had no idea, nor was she even remotely prepared, to become the fifth wife -- nor did she realize that, as a European woman, she would not be awarded even the slightest degree of acceptance by his household, his people, or the British establishment there. Does Anita have what it takes to overcome tradition? Would this princess live happily ever after in a place wealthy beyond her dreams?

The details of her story are so well written that the reader is immediately engaged with Ana -- soon to be officially renamed Prem Jaur (Princess of love) -- and her unusual position in tumultuous times circa early 1900s. Facts are easily intertwined with very realistic imaginings of life at the palace, travel, politics, domestic travails, and many other encounters with the renowned people of that period in history in India and Europe. From the food, to the clothing, to Anita's intimate life with the Raja (think Kamasutra), to the birth of a child, to the beliefs and behavior of the various religions and culture, and intrigue in the zenana -- it's all here in such remarkable description that the reader believes it all could have happened just this way.

It's a great story that brought out the researcher in me and provided a wonderful examination of the people, customs and country that was India before the end of British Imperial oversight. I'd recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction.

Thank you to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for the e-book to review.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

3.0 out of 5 stars -- Short and powerful, this novel focuses on some decisions (and the repercussions) made by a High Court judge while she is also experiencing some major turmoil in her own domestic life.

The "welfare" of children is always a moral and lofty goal, but who knows best how that might be achieved? The people of London bring forth their marital and family woes to be adjudicated by the highest court. One judge, Fiona Maye, is also mandated to arbitrate cases involving medical issues such as the separation of conjoined twins and the question of whether or not a boy with leukemia should be forced to receive a blood transfusion even though he and his parents are avowed Jehovah Witness who abhor the therapy.

To my mind, Fiona is a cold fish and I could not understand her personality nor her reaction to the dilemmas in her life -- not to say I didn't feel empathy for her, it's just that her responses weren't anything like my own would likely have been. When confronted by her husband wanting an "open marriage" because their sex life is nonexistent, her reaction is to run away from any meaningful discussion with him and passive aggressively deal with the situation by changing the locks. Meanwhile, her attention is focused on the case of Adam Henry -- a nearly 18 year old boy who needs a blood transfusion. I confess, as a nurse, that this prohibition makes absolutely no sense to me. On the other hand, I totally support freedom of religion and personal choice. Fiona decides to meet with the boy before making her ruling. The legal arguments described herein were brilliant. Unfortunately, she sets in motion a chain of events that result in an outcome that was not entirely anticipated. As any student of psychology knows, you can't take away a defense mechanism or a crutch without providing something else to hold onto.

The reason I gave this only 3 stars is partly because of the digressions in wholly uninteresting LONG sidebars related to music (Fiona is an amateur pianist) and, though I enjoy music myself and have a modest talent, these descriptions added nothing to the plot line and were in fact, to me, beside the point. I wanted to know more about the case that sort of derailed Fiona and that insight was sorely lacking. We know what happened, but since Fiona is so distancing of her own emotions, the reader never fully appreciates how her court related decisions really affect her. The ending is rather abrupt and, while we might admire her honesty, Fiona never clicks as any sort of woman we might want to know or befriend. She lacks a certain inability for insight into her own motives and feelings, and I judged her lacking because of that. I have read this author before and have previously felt frustration with his characterizations. Despite all this, the story is a good one and would make a great book club selection for discussion.

Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for the e-book ARC to review. 

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and TJ Mitchell

4.0 out of 5 stars "To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living."

"Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living." These words welcomed Dr. Judy Melinek to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York. Newly hired as a pathology fellow, she spent the next 2 years performing autopsies on a wide variety of cases to determine cause and manner of death for the official death certficate. This first person account puts the reader right into the mind and heart of the doctor as she receives her training and as she deals with many different situations in the morgue and out on a scene or in the city courthouse.

The book is rich in medical detail so be prepared for grisly, uncensored description of the cases Dr. Melinek witnesses or is tangentially involved in. Of particular horror are the sections recounting her experiences in the aftermath of both the 9/11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in Queens. I was particularly moved recognizing again the incredible effort during that mass-casualty disaster and the valiant, heroic people who tried to sustain the living so they could identify and reclaim the dead.

A bit uneven, the narrative jumps around in time, but is suffused with the personality and innate character of the author and her dedication to her profession. I love to read anything medical, and found this book extremely satisfying -- clearing up any misconceptions about what the job of Medical Examiner is and isn't. I recommend it to anyone interested in forensic pathology in its stark reality. I'll be thinking about the content for a long while and will remember that death investigation reveals that most unexpected fatalities are "either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something preditably hazardous." That's somewhat comforting, right?

Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for the e-book ARC to review.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

3.0 out of 5 stars -- What is truth? What is justice?

Convoluted story by unreliable narrators pulls this novel along, albeit cumbersomely, as it twists in many directions toward a fairly unsatisfying conclusion. Given my intense and immediate lack of empathy for the characters in this book, I found it hard to care too much about Noa's situation and her mixed up tale of lackluster achievement and her missed potential. Her dashed dreams, partially formed hopes, and going nowhere life before her imprisonment was mostly of her own making and the reasons for this are only partially explained and examined in the chapters counting down to her "X" , or execution, day. The other characters in the book are not so well drawn, with only tantalizing glimpses into the psyche of Marlene Dixon -- who, as an attorney and the mother of Sarah, the woman killed by Noa and the reason why Noa is on Death Row -- is a bit more understandable as her grief warps her perspective and sets her on a mission.

The narrative weaves back and forth in time and is repetitive in places and suspicious in others. Is Noa telling the truth about anything that has happened in her past or have the 10 years of solitary imprisonment warped her memories so that they are shrouded in veils that obscure and smooth those things that she might not want to remember accurately. Out of pain, formed by guilt? Noa recounts her childhood in bits and pieces, reflecting on her theatrical and emotionally absent mother, and her abandonment by a father she never knew but had recently reconnected with. How have her experiences shaped the person she is now, marking off her last days. At almost the last hour, Noa is given a spark of hope when Marlene Dixon announces that, in a change of heart, she no longer wants Noa to be executed for killing her daughter and sends a young attorney to Noa to help prepare a case for clemency -- only wanting to know WHY Noa killed Sarah, since Noa never took the stand at her trial or gave a motive. It was all speculation. Circumstantial evidence and questionable testimony. Will Marlene get the answers she needs -- because after all, those reasons won't bring her Sarah back to her. Ultimately, the question of expiation for wrongs committed and hope for the ultimate gift of forgiveness are main themes. But, what are exactly the crime(s) for which Noa bears the sentence? Is she redeemed?

I usually like dramas of this nature, but much of it required too much suspension of disbelief at the coincidental nature of the relationships between the characters and the parts portrayed. Sometimes I liked the writing, at others I found it tedious and ambiguous so that it was meandering all around the truth. I prefer a conclusion that answers my questions, quells my doubts, and allows me to interpret a mystery or get to the heart of the matter. I realize there is a moral argument regarding the death penalty but even more so, there certainly is sometimes difficulty in seeing where execution is equated with justice. I'm not meant here to argue the morality or legality of capital punishment, and readers will come to this with their own positions on the matter. At the end, the only question is -- did Noa deserve her sentence and how did her punishment change anything that had happened? Were the mitigating circumstances worthy of consideration? Even at the conclusion, there are loose ends. That's why this book would work great for a discussion group.

Thank you to Blogging for Books for this free paperback to review.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mean Streak by Sandra Brown

3.0 out of 5 stars -- Predictable romantic fluff disguised as a suspense thriller. Any reader of this genre will be immediately comfortable with the stereotypical characters -- the brooding and mysterious male stranger and the golden girl heroine who wakes up in a bed in a remote cabin with a knot on her head and a concussion and no idea what happened. So, a handsome, rugged man who won't give his name holed up alone with a beautiful woman in the wilderness with wintry conditions preventing her escape; no one is fooled, or scared. His threatening aura and refusal to give an explanation for her captivity notwithstanding, she is unafraid as he promises he won't hurt her. Is he her captor or her rescuer?

Dr. Emory Charbonneau, Atlanta pediatrician and heiress, is training for a fundraising marathon when she goes missing off the trail just outside of Drakeland, North Carolina. Her frantic husband, Jeff, seeks help from the local sheriff's office there when Emory doesn't return from her weekend practice run. Detectives Knight and Grange are concerned but quickly zero in on Jeff as a possible suspect in his wife's disappearance -- after all, isn't it usually the husband in a case like this? And, it seems that Jeff has a couple of motives for wanting his wife out of the picture.
Meanwhile, an FBI agent has spent 4 years searching for a man whose legacy was a shooting that left 8 people dead. Is the man who holds Emory the one he wants? 

The novel is fast-paced and flips between point of view as it moves toward its unsurprising climax when all secrets are revealed. This book would be perfect for a commute or vacation read as there's nothing but mindless entertainment here and sometimes that's exactly what the reader wants. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for the e-book ARC to review.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

This third and final book in the Century Trilogy demonstrates historical fiction done well. The novel, spanning the years from 1961 to 1989 with an epilogue dated November 4, 2008, gives a perspective of those times of incredible political and social turmoil as seen through the eyes of several different families. The characters are descended from many that were introduced in FALL OF GIANTS, continued in WINTER OF THE WORLD, and have significant roles during this period of revolution and change. Through their eyes and involvement, the reader experiences events such as the American Civil Rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the assassinations of US President John F Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King. In addition, the war in Vietnam, Nixon's resignation and the fall of Communism, along with commentary on publishing, television programming, folk music and rock and roll are related through the various viewpoints of the characters in this novel intertwining the fictional with the real historical figures in the unique way that only Ken Follett can write. That's a lot of material for just one novel and this one weighs in at a hefty 1120 pages.

Assuming a certain level of research and allowing for the license of relative fabrication provided when writing fiction, the novel maintains a fast pace switching to and fro between the different time periods, countries and characters involved in the pivotal historical moments. There is a bit of suspension of disbelief required, but forgiven, as the interaction between Follett's characters and those key people involved in genuine events make the narrative unfold smoothly. For the most part, I relished the book and the history lessons within. Since I am not a historian, I can make no judgment about the accuracy of each situation as it is described and my review and enjoyment of reading it has no bearing on its historical merit even if a few things seemed a bit dubious with some political bias on the part of the author a bit evident.

Now, the truth is that there was definitely an unneeded and distracting emphasis in the book that I did not particularly appreciate and that was Follett's continual focus on the sex lives of his characters. In fact, if most of that was left out of the novel, I suspect it could be shortened by at least 100 pages or more! Perhaps others like this type of salacious drivel, but to me, it didn't enhance or add any value to the story. The characters definitely had some problems in their love lives and relationships but I think that many unnecessary scenes -- such as one describing two women naked in front of a mirror trying on bras -- were a waste of Follett's talent. I just found myself skipping over and moving past when it became more than annoying. For all that Follett's many strong female characters do to advance the cause of women everywhere, they certainly often don't come off as really liberated as often they are reduced to stereotypes. I was able to ignore most of this in the novel and just get to the plot movement without ever feeling very attached to any of the romantic drama -- which suited me fine. I would really like to know if this is noted by other readers and what thoughts they have about it.

Finally, I do recommend this book and welcome the other reviews that are sure to come regarding historical accuracy of the events described in the novel. It brought back many memories of a time that I lived through but was too young to know much about while it was going on. Certainly the years of history and current events classes in school did not give me the same interest in the subject that I have now. I reminded myself often that this was not a research paper but a story that maybe, could, might have happened sort of like this.

Thank you to the FirsttoRead program via Penguin for the e-book ARC to review.