The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman


 "A few glasses of wine and a mystery---very social, but also gory. It is good fun."

When you think of a retirement community, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I have memories of visiting my great grandmother in her nursing home, seeing the other folks gathered in the cafeteria/activities room, playing dominoes, and sharing stories. My guess is that you would think of something similar. What you probably wouldn't imagine is a group of seniors investigating murders, but that's exactly what British TV Presenter Richard Osman has conjured up in his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club. I was so intrigued by this inventive premise that I was eager to dive into the copy of the book that Osman's publisher graciously provided me. 

Joyce is one of the newer residents of the upscale senior living facility called Coopers Chase. She's a former nurse who did well enough financially to end up spending the rest of her days in the luxury retirement community. The rooms are spacious enough, but the rest of the amenities really sealed the deal. She spends her time enjoying a glass of wine and honing her baking skills, but Joyce longs for something more stimulating to occupy her days. 

Enter Elizabeth, perhaps the most determined person Joyce has ever met. Not much is known about Elizabeth's secretive past. Suffice it to say that whatever work the woman did, she is well-connected and has a seemingly endless chain of contacts to achieve whatever she desires. One day Elizabeth recruits Joyce's medical expertise by showing her a set of crime scene photos. At first, Joyce is a bit taken aback by the images shes seeing. As she begins to study the pictures and apply her knowledge to form medical conclusions about the crime, however, she begins to feel the same thrill she has been lacking since moving into the retirement community. Joyce is hooked, and Elizabeth is pleased. 

Elizabeth reveals to Joyce The Thursday Murder Club, a group comprised of herself and two other men. The friends meet weekly in the jigsaw puzzle room and hash out their theories around various crimes. Elizabeth's connections to the police department help to keep a fresh supply of cases for their weekly gatherings. Joyce is excited to join in all the fun. When one of the owners of Coopers Chase is suddenly killed, the murder club shifts its focus from decades-old cold cases to the one that has occurred in their own back yard. If they can help solve this killing, they'll legitimize their club beyond the current perception of four friends meeting to reminisce about times gone by. 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman might be the most charming book I've read all year. Osman combines elements of a more traditional cozy mystery with the strong character work and plot points of a more hardened crime novel to form a genre-bending novel that gripped me for the entire duration. I'm not sure what inspired him to write a book about a group of crime-fighting octogenarians, but I'm really happy that he did. Osman cleverly uses the age of his main characters to build a deep history into each one of them, imbuing them wisdom and struggles that can only come from time and experience. The retirement community where the majority of the novel is set is a fully-realized world, full of detailed settings and well-drawn supporting characters. I truly felt like I was there with the characters. As for the mystery, Osman layered in enough red herrings and twists to keep me guessing all the way to the big reveal at the end. With a unique premise, alluring characters, and a captivating mystery, The Thursday Murder Club is a nearly perfect debut novel. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.

(2020, 42)

Love, Zac by Reid Forgrave


"The truth is inconvenient. The truth could be painful. This is a game people love. But as a society, we evolve."

Football has become almost as American as the Statue of Liberty or the Fourth of July. I mean, think about it for a moment. My time in the high school band revolved around supporting our football team every Friday night. Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without "the big game" playing on the TV. Even colleges, places that are supposed to be dedicated to higher learning, feature massive football stadiums looming over the rest of campus. American's love the game, but as author Reid Forgrave explores in his new book Love, Zac, our love affair with the sport may be doing more harm than good.

Zac Easter was the quintessential all-American high school athlete. What he lacked in size he made up for in toughness. Football and grit seemed to run in his family. Zac's dad was the assistant coach at his rural midwestern high school. His older brother was a high school football star player. Playing the sport was not only a rite of passage for the Easter men, but it was also an expectation. If you don't play football, how will you become a proper man?

Every game, Zac put forth all of his efforts, willing his body to push the limits of what it was capable of. Each play saw the young man violently collide with other players. It even earned him the coveted "big hammer" title from his coach. There were plenty of plays that left Zac raddled, dizzy, or even knocked out, but he always got up and returned to the field. Somewhere along the way, playing through the pain became the rule, not the exception. Finally, a catastrophic impact during his senior year took Zac out of the game for good. His football career was over, but the lifelong impact of his time playing the game was only beginning.

"Spread the word of mental illness and concussions, and over time, please spread my story. Great things can still happen from this event."

I don't often include trigger warnings in reviews, but I feel it is appropriate to do so with this book. Love, Zac is a gut-wrenching look at one person's struggle with injury, mental illness, and eventually suicide. This isn't normally the kind of book I would pick up to read, but Forgrave treats the subject with respect and transparency. After reading it, I'm happy that the publisher saw fit to send me a copy to review. The book doesn't just bash the sport. Forgrave even admits to being a fan of Football himself. Instead, it paints an intimate portrait of one young man's struggle with the aftereffects of traumatic hits to the head. As his headaches became a permanent symptom of years of physical trauma, Zac began to keep a journal. In reading the passages from it, we see his mental and physical anguish play out in real-time. Forgrave also interviews coaches, athletic trainers, doctors, and family members, filling in the gaps of Zac's writing and providing a complete picture of this one case. Football is ingrained into our culture, a part of our national identity. Love, Zac is never an argument against the game. Rather it is a sobering reminder of the price of this obsession.

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.
Zac's family has set up an organization in his honor. Learn more about CTE Hope here.
(2020, 41)

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen


Over the long holiday weekend, I decided to get as much of my last-minute summer reading in as I possibly could. By the time I sat down to write this review, the promise of an early fall cool front quickly diminished. It seems like the brutal Texas heat is going to be sticking around for a while. I browsed my bookshelf for that perfect book to satisfy my need for one more summer read, and quickly landed on Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen. I really got a kick out of his book Bad Monkey, so I felt his Florida-based mix of humor and mystery would more than meet my expectations.

Honey Santana is on a mission. While sitting down for dinner with her son, the house phone rang. Her son urged her to ignore it, but Honey is completely over these calls interrupting their family meals. She is not going to take this annoyance lying down. Honey picks up the phone and gives the caller a piece of her mind. What she didn't expect was the man on the other end to verbally fight back. He calls her words no professional telemarketer should use, let alone any other respectful person. Honey quickly reaches out to the man's manager and relays her disgust at the hateful language that he used. For most people, that would be the end of the situation, but Honey is not most people. Honey wants revenge.

Boyd Shreave is pretty much a failure at everything. The miserable man couldn't even hold down his job as a telemarketer. He let his pride get the better of him and committed the fatal sin of mouthing off to a potential customer. At least he still has Eugenia, his former co-worker, and current mistress. Boyd is ready to leave his wife and start a new life, but Eugenia does not feel the same. With the convenience of the couple working together gone, she sees little reason to continue their relationship. When Boyd comes to her with a once in a lifetime opportunity to vacation in Florida and canoe through the wetlands, Eugenia decides to extend their romance, at least for the weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

Nature Girl has all the makings of a perfect summer read. Hiaasen mixes satire, crime, and compelling characters into a story that you won't want to stop reading. Shifting perspectives between each character allows for variety and adds a tinge of suspense that balances the more humorous premise. It also clues in the reader to every motivation of the characters, so we know what is happening before some of the other cast does. All of the threads in this book converge in a satisfying conclusion that teeters precariously close to the edge of absurdity. It is all in good fun though, and that's really all I want from my summer reading. Nature Girl was a perfect way to spend the last bits of the summer holiday.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 40)

The Shadows by Alex North


"Perhaps life was just a matter of doing what you thought was best at the time and then living with the consequences as best you could afterward."

People often ask me how I maintain my lofty goal of reading at least one book each week. The answer is pretty simple actually. I read whenever I can. In the past five years or so, audiobooks have become an integral part of meeting that weekly quota. Before the outbreak of COVID-19 forced me to work from home, I would listen to books as part of my daily commute to work. Working from home has seen me be a little more creative about my listening. Now I'll crank on a book as I cook, clean, or walk the dog. Pretty much anytime I have the chance to listen, I try to pop in my headphones and give it a go. Naturally, I was very excited when NetGalley (the website I receive many advanced copies of books from) introduced audiobooks to review. I quickly snagged a copy of Alex North's followup to his fantastic debut, The Whisper Man, and settled in for the creepy suspense of The Shadows. 

It has been twenty-five years since Paul was in his home town of Gritton Wood. All this time later, the horrific events from that time still haunt his dreams. Paul fell into a friend group with Charlie Crabtree. Crabtree used his darkly magnetic personality to influence his peers. The kids were drawn to Crabtree's mystical control of his dreams, seemingly not only connected to his own mind but the dreams of others too. Like the other boys, Paul was entranced by the possibilities that Crabtree presented. He stood in awe of the potential of inhabiting different dreamscapes. When Crabtree's sinister intentions were revealed, Paul left the group, but the other boys were already too invested in the magic of the dream world. Shortly after Paul parted ways, Crabtree convinced one of the boys to gruesomely murder the other. The murderer was arrested, but Crabtree disappeared, never to be seen again.

Paul's reluctant return is motivated by his mother's late-stage dementia. The pair have stayed in touch, but this is the first time they have faced each other in the last two decades. Mental decay aside, she has been doing okay physically. A recent fall changed all of that. As Paul visits her bedside, his mother's physical frailty finally matching that of her mind, she begins to speak to him. She's not making much sense, but her words are filling Paul with unease. These words coupled with an ominous discovery in her attic leave him reeling with a dread he hasn't felt since those interactions with Crabtree.

Coupled with the story of Paul is that of Amanda Beck, a hot-shot young detective from the nearby town of Featherbank (fans of North's other novel The Whisper Man will know this town well). Amanda is investigating a string of murders that are eerily familiar to the crimes that Charlie Crabtree inspired. As she investigates these apparent copy cat crimes, she begins to fear that Crabtree may not have vanished after all. Paul is the only person left who is familiar with Crabtree's rationale, so Amanda turns to him. As the book proceeds, the line between imagination and reality is blurred, making the events ahead all the more dangerous.

The Shadows sees author Alex North follow up his massively successful debut with another novel that plays on both the horror and suspense genres. All the elements that made The Whisper Man a success are here too. There's the prodigal son figure returning home after years away. There a creepy legend that haunts the town because it might actually be true. There's a detective investigating crimes that are strangely reminiscent of crimes that happened in the past. Still, there's something about this new book that just didn't move me in the same way that the other one did. Both John Heffernan Hannah Arterton, who narrated the audiobook, did an excellent job of bringing the characters to life (even at a 1.75x speed), but something about the story itself rang a bit hollow to me. The Inception-like idea of entering dreams is intriguing enough, providing a level of the supernatural that wasn't as prominent in North's previous effort. For some reason, I just couldn't engage with this story in the way that I wanted to. Perhaps the plot and structure were just all a bit too familiar for me. Whatever the case may be. Everything about The Shadows is perfectly fine as a serviceable thriller. After the stellar debut of The Whisper Man, this one just left me wanting something more.

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.
(2020, 39)

Last One Out Shut Off the Lights by Stephanie Soileau


As Hurricane Laura made landfall on the Louisiana and Texas coasts, I happened to be finishing a collection of short stories that are set largely in that same area. Stephanie Soileau's publisher sent me a copy of her debut collection of short stories Last One Out Shut Off the Lights to read and review. Soileau grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and she sets this collection firmly within the setting that she is intimately familiar with. This intimacy sees Soileau imbue each story with the rich culture, community, and resilience of the people of her home state.

The first couple of stories set the tone for the work as a whole. So This Is Permanence and An Attachment Theory both see young mothers coming to terms with the realities of their motherhood. In one, a teenage mother is grappling with raising a child of her own while still being a child herself. She has little support and simply wants to go back to life as it was before. In the other, The mother and child have a more established relationship. This mother is purchasing her own place, finally leaving the security of her childhood home to make it on her own. Both grapple with the bond between mother and child and reveal the different realities of family life in the area.

I'm sure the fact that a massive storm was threatening to make landfall in the area I was reading about had an impact on which stories I connected with most. It should come as no surprise then that my favorites of the book were both about everyday people making the most of a disaster. Haguillory tells the story of a man and his wife making due in the aftermath of a major storm. The couple lives in a smaller town, overshadowed by the major cities that were also ravaged by the storm. The damage was no less devastating, but the support of those more populated areas is much stronger than theirs. The story reveals the man's internal struggle to make sense of his place in life while also battling inner demons that tell him his life doesn't matter.

The Boucherie is the final story in this collection, a perfect ending that encapsulates many of the themes of the other installments. This time, the community isn't dealing with a natural disaster, but a freak accident that caused a big rig hauling cattle to overturn, leaving the bovine to roam freely away from the vehicle. One stray cow has made its way into the tiny neighborhood and into the yard of a Sudanese family. I personally witnessed the way a community can come together in the aftermath of Hurrican Harvey, and Soileau's writing captures that sense of community and erosion of division for the sake of a common goal. It provides optimism and understanding that seems to be severely lacking these days. After several stories that were a bit darker in nature (even this one has its share of gloomier moments) this was a brilliant way to end the collection on a high note.

It was hard to read Last One Out Shut Off the Lights without having the impending storms cast their shadow over my reading. Louisiana is a state that is no stranger to disaster, but it is also no stranger to what it takes to work through and overcome adversity. Be it weather events, economic hardships, or strained personal relationships, the characters in these stories are each facing some kind of challenge that we can all relate to. Behind every generalized news story or statistic lies a real person, the kind of people that Soileau is familiar with, and the kind of people who inhabit her writing. Her prose is direct and often times stark, allowing the depth of her characters and their emotional development to be the focus of her words. As with any collection of short stories, you'll no doubt find some stories that you enjoy more than others. That being said, there is no denying the inherent humanity that resides on each page. This is a fantastic debut from a promising author who I can't wait to read more from in the future.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 38)

Texas Outlaw by James Patterson


Back in April, I was just getting used to the idea of working from home and living life in quarantine. I was really taking advantage of all the extra time by reading things outside of my normal reading habits. At a certain point, however, I started to hit a wall. I was needing something to read that was a bit more familiar and comfortable. I turned to one of my go-to authors James Patterson. His book Texas Ranger, was everything I needed at that moment, a quick escape from reality with likable characters and plenty of twists and turns.  All these months later, it is hard to believe that we are still living through the same scenario. Lucky for me, Patterson has released a sequel to his Texas Ranger thriller. Once again, I was able to quickly settle into the familiar comforts of Texas Outlaw. 

Texas Ranger Rory Yates has gained a bit more notoriety since we last looked in on him. Solving a string of high-profile murders and dating an up and coming country music star will do that to a man.  Today, Rory is enjoying the relative anonymity of visiting a local bank branch. This lunch break is not meant to be, and Rory soon finds himself in the middle of a good old fashioned bank robbery. This is nothing a seasoned Texas Ranger can't handle. Rory tries to talk some sense into the culprit, but the burglar continues to be threatening and violent. Given no other choice, Rory shoots the robber, ending any chance for the thief to hurt any of the innocent bystanders.

There's one thing Rory wasn't counting on. One of the bystanders in the bank has their phone up and recording the entire altercation. That video quickly made its way onto social media and spread like wildfire. Now Rory and the Rangers have a different kind of notoriety, the kind that has called into question the practices of law enforcement. Eager to let the flames from the viral video ease a bit, the Rangers send Rory to work in a small town until things cool off.

The Chief of police in Rio Lobo is not happy to have a Texas Ranger interfere with what looks to be a pretty cut and dry case. A woman died of an apparent allergic reaction (those pesky peanuts), and that seems to be the consensus around her untimely demise. Strangely, she phoned a friend hours before claiming she needed to speak to the police. As Rory begins investigating this peculiar death, it becomes very apparent that he is not welcomed in the town. When another man is shot and killed in the town, however, Rory realizes that things aren't as open and closed as they seemed. He pokes around and makes some discoveries that blow this case wide open. The only problem he doesn't have the power of the town's police or the Texas Rangers backing him up. If he's going to solve these murders, he'll have to go against all of his training and the rules of the rangers and become a true Texas Outlaw.

With Texas Outlaw, James Patterson and co-author Andrew Bourelle provided the kind of fast-paced escapism that I was needing. This sequel allows the pair to take their hero Rory Yates on a more nuanced emotional journey than the origin story first novel granted. As such, I'd give a slight edge to this one over the previous book. Patterson's trademark short chapters, non-stop action, and plentiful twists are all there, but it is the character work in this one that really elevates it from his usual fare. The familiarity I was craving was completely satisfied, and that is pretty much what I look for when I pick up one of his books. Texas Outlaw is escapist fiction at its most basic level. Sometimes that is all you really need.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 37)

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