THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR: A REVIEW by guest author Savanna Sanchez, student in my Advanced Writing class

As a huge fan of the TV show, Law and Order:SVU, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena is a novel that held my attention from the very beginning. The Couple Next Door is a riveting tale about a seemingly ordinary couple. While at a party next door, Anne and Marco Conti’s baby, Cora is kidnapped. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents.  But the truth is a much more complicated story. The detective assigned to case, Detective Rasbach, believes the couple is hiding something. As he works to discover the truth of Cora’s disappearance, Anne and Marco discover they are both keeping secrets from each other. Are the Conti’s actually responsible for Cora’s disappearance? What unravels in this novel  is a story full of secrets, deception, and lies.

Shari Laperna writes from the point of view of all the characters, revealing details to the reader that the other characters do not know yet. This keeps the reader constantly on edge, waiting for the other characters to discover the secrets you just read. Unfortunately, this also makes the book a bit slow-moving.  Scenes often occur twice, from the viewpoint of two different characters. However, the conclusion of the novel was not at all what I expected, and a chill still runs down my spine when I think about it. Does Detective Rasbach find Cora? Are the parents responsible? What are Anne and Marco hiding? Next time you are at the bookstore, be sure to pick up The Couple Next Door. You will not be disappointed.

Note from Rae: Please use the “leave a response box” to comment on Savanna’s review and encourage her to possibly begin a book review blog of her own. Thanks.

THE BONE COLLECTOR’S SON, HISTORICAL FICTION BASED ON FACT FOR YOUNG ADULTS

Paul Yee’s historical novel, published in 2005, is a good read for junior high and above, as well as for adults.  Have you ever heard of Vancouver’s Chinatown riots of September 7, 1907?  Neither have I.  This attempt to purge Canada of Asian immigrants, a parade right through the middle of Chinatown, by the  “Asiatic Exclusion League” turned a bad idea into a war between the Asians and equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan.

The story is told from the point of view of young Ba, son of Bing, the “bone collector,”who makes his living returning the bones of people who died in America back to China to be buried “properly.” It is a job nobody else will do because of superstition and not wanting to do such a lowly job. When Bing digs up the bones of Mr. Shum, whose skull is missing, strange things begin to happen. Although he grew up on ghost stories, Ba tries to heed his father’s advice that there are no such things as ghosts. When Ba “graduates” to houseboy in the Bently home, he finds he must face many things with courage, and eventually is able to help Mrs. Bently “restore” the mansion to its former state and condition. What was a haunted house becomes a happy home.

The characters are fictional, the plot is imaginative, but the facts on which it is based are real. This is a fascinating “peek” into Canada’s history and an easy way to learn and enjoy  it.

THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP by Nina George: A Review

Nina George commented that this novel is her “love letter to books” when she published it in 2015.  It presents The Literary Apothecary, a floating book barge moored on the Seine where Monsieur Perdue diagnoses people’s/customer’s problems and prescribes books for whatever ailment they are experiencing. Max Jordan, a best selling young author, eccentric as the earmuffs he always wears, comes to the Apothecary, hiding out from fans of his books. Handing Jordan his last copy of a book Perdue thinks will fit the  author’s needs, Perdue delivers the following prescription: “Read this. Three pages every morning  before breakfast, lying down. It has to be the first thing you take in.  In a few weeks, you won’t feel quite so sore–it’ll be as though you no longer have to atone for your success with writer’s block.”

Max asks the older gentleman, “How did you know? I really can’t stand the money and the horrible heat of success.”Max learns Monsieur Perdue has an unopened letter from a departed lover. Finally reading it after twenty years sets the two men off to the South of France, Perdue hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the lovers’ unfinished story.  The adventures that follow and the characters they meet on their journey makes for a warm, often humorous read one won’t soon forget.

I can’t think of any reader who would not enjoy it.

MIDNIGHT AT THE BRIGHT IDEAS BOOKSTORE by Matthew Sullivan: A Review

Not quite a “cozy mystery,” but nearly one, this 2017 novel by Sullivan has twists and turns, oddball characters, and is a page-turning, quick, enjoyable read. Lynda, who works at the Bright Ideas Bookstore has a special place in her heart for the “Brook Frogs,” misfits and sometimes homeless men who hang out most days at the bookstore. Joey and Lyle, two strangely-matched friends are her favorites. Near closing time, Lynda goes looking for Joey who hasn’t come by the register yet, and, well, let the author set the scene…

“…The third floor was dim and peaceful…Something squeaked…’Last call, Joey!” She could feel her eyes trying to shut out what she was seeing: Joey, hovering in the air, swinging like a pendulum. A long ratcheted strap was threaded over a ceiling beam and looped around his neck.”  The writing is masterful; the reader is there.

Joey has left two things for Lynda. There is a photo of Linda at her  tenth birthday party in his pocket (which she hides), and she is “willed” a series of books Joey owned, all cut up with razor blades, which reveal a coded message directly to Linda. Why did her friend hang himself? What is her connection to this homeless man?  As Lynda searches for answers, she consults retired police detective Moberg, who all along has suspected Lynda’s recluse father of a horrendous murder to which Lynda was the only witness. For a moment, Lynda suspects her father; for a moment we suspect him. Reconnecting with her father to determine his connection with Joey, she has flashbacks of witnessing from underneath a kitchen cupboard the night her best friend and both her parents were savagely murdered.  Lynda and her father have been estranged for years, and the job at the Bright Ideas bookstore was the safe haven of a woman trying to hide her past as the “Little Lynda” the tabloids and TV broadcasts screamed about until the next sensational tragedy came to pass.

I can’t call this a page-turner because I read it on a Kindle, but I couldn’t swipe quickly enough! It is a fine read, wonderfully written and deserves some kind of award.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M.L. Stedman: A Review

This 2012 NY Times Bestseller is just now being discovered by book clubs, perhaps because it lends itself so well to discussions involving human empathy, ethics, and the fact that the book is just such a darned good story. It is heart wrenching and, as advertised on the cover, deals with “love, loss, and right and wrong,” just the meat for a group to chew on.

In the story, we find Tom Sherborne, a veteran from the Western Front during WWII, were he saw all the horrors of war and is left dealing with the fact he has killed, something very much against his personal beliefs; taking a job as a lighthouse keeper. Not just any lighthouse, but the one on Janus Island, off the coast of Australia, so isolated it is “half a day’s journey by boat to even get to it.” On leave, while on the Australian coast, he meets a very young Isobel, a bold, pampered girl who loves him unconditionally from the moment she sees him. At her insistence, they marry and he whisks her away to an isolated, lonely, mundane life on Janus, for they are the only humans there.  Surprisingly enough she is perfectly satisfied. as he is all she wants and needs.

In the early years of their marriage, she suffers miscarriages and a stillbirth, which, of course affects them both, as well as the marriage.  One day a boat washes up on shore, containing a dead man and a live baby girl. Tom wants and knows he should report this “find” to the authorities, but Isabel feels in His own strange way, God has sent her a child.

The story becomes increasingly tragic as the years go by, and the girl grows up. As Tom struggles with his conscience, and the couple meet the child’s grieving mother while on shore leave, the reader fears a collision of epic proportions, which actually does occur.  However, the author miraculously brings about a satisfying (if not a happy-ever-after) ending, and the reader breathes a sigh of satisfaction, having experienced a “darned good read.”

Reviewing LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly (published 2016)

This debut novel is based on real events and real people.  It is set during WWII beginning with the invasion of Poland through the fall and liberation of France. It is not just another Holocaust story, but tells a broader tale. The author’s purpose seems to be to keep this period of women’s history alive as it explores several themes.

Kelly weaves together the lives of three extraordinary women and includes a “doomed wartime romance,” an ambitious career woman striving to make a way into a male dominated field, and the feelings and emotions of two closely attached  biological sisters. The writing is deeply moving and has beautiful, vivid descriptions.  The novel begins  with  and revolves around Caroline, based on a real socialite and employee of the French Consulate in New York City, who is not just “doing her part for the war effort,” but is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives. The title comes from the lilacs planted at her Bethlehem, Connecticut, home, which today is a museum.  Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to the notorious Ravensbruck Labor Camp along with her doctor sister  because she has been caught smuggling messages to the resistance is the second Lilac girl. A brilliant German doctor, Herta Oberhauser, makes up the third of the trio as she works with the Nazis, operating on the “Rabbits,” of which Kasia and her sister are a part.

One critic describes this fiction-based-on-fact novel as the story of “…unsung women and their quest for love, freedom, and second chances.” I loved the novel for its twists and turns in the plot, its excellently drawn characters, and the way it kept my interest through the final pages. I highly recommend this as a “darned good read.”

 

THE ADDRESS by Fiona Davis: A Review

I finished this book nearly a month ago, but summer school and its fast pace prevented me from reviewing it until now.  I wanted to do it justice because the author is a friend, and she has written a really fine novel.

When one hears the address, The Dakota (an apartment building, now a building of condos) in New York, one’s mind automatically goes to John Lennon’s murder, but the story goes back much further than that, to the 1800’s to another infamous murder at that address. Davis has thoroughly done her research on the building (Her novels are set in buildings in New York), and discovered that the architect was stabbed to death, supposedly by a crazy woman of that day. She has envisioned how it could have been and written a very plausible story explaining her vision.

A blurb on the book describes it as “…about the thin line between love and loss, success and ruin, passion and madness.”  In the novel, Theodore Camden was found stabbed to death, presumably by Sarah Smith, his lover. That is the 1800’s story.  The 1985 story finds Bailey Camden (notice the name) an out of work recovering alcoholic just returning from rehab, who is  forced to throw herself on the mercy of Melinda, her vacuous cousin for a job and a place to live.  The job, at the Dakota, which includes an apartment, as what seems to be her only salary, develops into an interest in (bordering on obsession with) the building. I have never read such twists and turns as were in both Sarah’s 1884 story and Bailey’s 1985 investigation into her ancestor’s murder.

As in Davis’ debut novel, The Dollhouse, about the Barbizon hotel, the novel alternates between the early story and the more modern one.  This never confuses the reader, however, for chapters in both novels are clearly marked with dates. Also like The Dollhouse, Davis’ newest is a historical romance story, involves a crime of passion, and has several mysteries to solve. The opening of The Address, begins arrestingly: “The sight of a child teetering on the window ledge of room 510 turned Sarah’s world upside down.” Thus begins a tale that kept me up far past my bedtime because I couldn’t put it down. Dishes and laundry went unwashed, social activities were put on hold, and telephone calls went unanswered during my two-day immersion in The Address. The author’s inclusion of the details of the period were reminiscent of those taken by the creators of “Downton Abbey.”

I am so looking forward to Davis’ next novel, which I have on her mother’s word, is set in Grand Central Station. To all people who love all things New York and any reader who enjoys a good read, I highly recommend this book.

Stephen King’s Song of Susanna

During my own little 24 Reading Marathon (See earlier posts), I resumed reading King’s Song of Susanna, Book Six of The Dark Tower series (one  more to go!) This is a journey that has literally taken years, but one that has been totally worth the time and effort.

From the Calla and the wolves of book five to New York City in 1999 is a big leap, and the tet  of gunslingers get there by various “doors”, but eventually the ka tet are  all in the same time and place, although they have not encountered each other yet by the end of the book. What they find in 1999 proves to be both interesting and action-filled.  Characters from other books make cameo appearances, and old stories affect and merge with current developments. Horror and gore abound.  Strangest of all, I have never had the experience of an author writing himself into the plot as a character in the novel before!  Leave it to King’s imagination and creativity.

Great storytelling.  Great humor. Great suspense. Great adventure. And, Great dialogue.

 

Review of Bill Bryson’s ONE SUMMER

Although this book was published in 2013, I’m just getting around to it.  I had read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid back at Christmas, then sent it on to my little brother who WAS the little boy growing up in the 1950’s.  He was kind enough to send me Bryson’s Road to Little Dribblings which was then on the best seller list to reciprocate.  I enjoyed both so much, I checked One Summer out of our Alvin library.

The book is the story of America during the summer of 1927, the year of Lucky Lindy’s trans-Atlantic flight.  It was also the beginning of Babe Ruth’s home run record which ended on the following September 30, 1927.  There are simply a plethora of interesting facts about that eventful summer, and Bryson includes them all.

Told in typical Bill Bryson’s style–humorous, detailed, and always readable–the book includes the “summer’s personalities” and exciting events. In places the writing and the events are “weird,” but isn’t that what we have come to expect from Bryson? One reviewer labelled the book, “narrative fiction of the highest order,” which it is, but above all, it is a darned good read.