The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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I'm very late to the game with this book. At this point, it almost feels redundant to review it. Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give is a novel that has captured readers from the moment it was published by shining a light on the people affected by gun violence and police brutality. I've been hesitant to read this book. With so much unnecessary violence, racism, and injustice present in the real world, reading about those same topics in fiction just wasn't something I was emotionally prepared for. But then the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial came in. While his conviction isn't the end of systemic racism in policing, it was a hopeful sign of progress in the long battle ahead. Inspired by the moment and determined to continue reading stories of those with different perspectives from my own, I decided to finally read The Hate U Give. 

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is a girl who lives two lives. The first is that of her life at school, a prominent prep school filled with affluent, mostly white students. She's had no trouble making friends, but she has learned to adapt and compartmentalize her school life with the other side of her. This place and these people just aren't ready to see the "real" Starr. When she leaves school, she heads home to a place that her school friends would probably consider another world. Starr doesn't live in the wealthy neighborhoods of her friends. She lives on the poor side of town. To her, this is home. It is the place her father owns a business, the place her childhood friends have grown up, and a place where she feels the greatest sense of community. 

Starr's worlds begin to collide when she and a friend are pulled over while leaving a party. The officer panics and fatally shoots her friend. In almost an instant, the victim-blaming begins. Claims of the victim being a drug dealer, gangbanger, and thug begin to circulate in the media. It is as if they are saying that he deserved to be killed. Besides the officer, Starr is the only witness to the shooting, the only one who has the voice that can speak the truth to this murder. But putting herself out there to the world will come with a cost. Everyone in her life at the prep school will know she was involved in the shooting. Everyone at home will know too. Determined to not let her friend become another statistic in the long history of police brutality, Starr risks everything to make sure the world knows what really happened. 

It is hard to describe the impact a book like The Hate U Give has on the reader. Angie Thomas begins her story like any other young adult novel. Her main character is someone who is coming to terms with who she is and who she wants to be. All the pressures of being a normal teenager are present. With an opening that seems so familiar, I was a bit disarmed by the sudden onslaught of police brutality. At one moment, life was normal. In the next, everything changed. This is the harsh reality that far too many people of color have to face. Thomas does an excellent job of building her characters and the community they inhabit. These people are familiar, the kinds of people whom we encounter on a daily basis. Her ability to get the reader to invest so heavily in her characters only adds to the outrage we feel as they face injustice. The Hate U Give is a story for our times, the kind of novel that demands to be read. It forces us to face the harsh reality of our world while encouraging us to learn more about the lives of our neighbors. I can't recommend it highly enough. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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There's power in the idea of a place. Think about it for a second. Things inevitably change, people come and go, but a place can remain. Within a single place, be it a home, a city, a state, different people will have different experiences. Even the same person can experience varying events in that one place. In her debut novel, Idaho, author Emily Ruskovich examines the possibility within her own imagined version of the state. Through a non-linear narrative surrounding an intimate group of characters, Ruskovich invites her readers to experience the love, sorrow, hope, and despair that all traverses a single place. 

Wade and Jenny's move to Idaho was one built on the promise of deepening their life together, and for the most part, that's exactly what the couple did. They began to raise their two daughters May and June amongst the mountainous landscape. Life was never easy, but together they were getting through it. Then one day, the joy of their life together was abandoned for pure tragedy. The family was forever changed by this instance, never to be fully together again. From this moment, the threads of Ruckovich's tale spread, delving into the lives of the characters before and after. 

Ann's move to Idaho from her native Europe brings hope of opportunity. As a music teacher, she revels in connecting her students with her passion for the arts. It is at the school that she first meets Wade, the parent to a student she's having to discipline. There is sorrow behind Wade's eyes. After their first meeting, Ann meets with Wade again. He soon reveals that he's been diagnosed with dementia, a condition passed on to him by his father. From there, the pair begin to form a relationship. First, it is simply the relationship between a piano teacher and her unconventional student, a man fighting to hold on to whatever scraps of memory remain. Soon it blossoms into something much deeper, a relationship that moves them to love in ways they never imagined but also one in which they encounter challenges neither of them could have foreseen. 

This is a slow, contemplative read. Rusckovich seems more concerned with the emotional introspections of her characters than building any kind of propulsive plot. While jumbling the timeline of the narrative gives way for a variety of emotional moments, it does little to maintain any sort of narrative cohesion. Several times I found myself uncertain of where I was in the book, confused about exactly which part in the character's life I was reading. I kept waiting for the separate threads of the book to come together into some sort of revelatory whole. Alas, no such conclusion occurred. My qualms with the non-linear structure of the novel aside, there is no denying the deliberate approach that Ruskovich takes with her characters. Idaho reads as a kind of tone poem. At its heart, it is a quiet exploration of the characters and emotions that they experience through this singular place. Ruskovich's ability to craft layered characters through her subtly nuanced writing is the real strength of this novel. To that end, Idaho is a fascinating, if not a bit frustrating, read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 16)


Ocean Prey by John Sandford

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With so many books coming my way each year, it can be hard to devote time to reading a series. There are just so many books to read with never enough time to read them all.  This means that I usually don't keep up with a series beyond the first installment. However, when it comes to John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series, I can't help but look forward to the next novel. No matter what I'm supposed to be reading, I always carve out a few days to devour his latest. I was a bit surprised when Sandford's publisher sent me his latest novel featuring his other long-time hero Lucas Davenport. I've read the first novel to feature Davenport, but I've never kept up with the other 29 Prey novels. When I found out that Ocean Prey happened to feature Virgil Flowers too, all made sense, and I quickly began reading. 

The book opens with a bang. An off-duty Coast Guardsman stumbles upon a crime in action, just off the coast of Florida. A group of drug runners is pulling up large canisters from the ocean floor, filled with what has to be drugs. When the coast guard intervenes, a gunfight breaks out leaving 3 officers dead, the drug smuggling boat torched, drug-filled canisters on the bottom of the sea, and no real leads as to who was behind the crime. An FBI-led task force struggles with the case for weeks before they finally call in the support of US Marshall Lucas Davenport. Davenport has a reputation for discreetly blurring the lines between lawful investigation and downright intimidation, but one thing is certain. Davenport knows how to get results. 

As the full scope of the case unfolds, Davenport begins to worry that their task force is outmatched. A mid-novel ambush reveals those worries to be true, and Davenport is forced to call in more support. His old buddy from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Virgil Flowers is a natural choice. Flowers is about as unconventional of an investigator as they come. Flowers's hippy cowboy appearance and willingness to follow whatever unorthodox plan Davenport conceives makes him the perfect candidate to go undercover and infiltrate the suspected drug lords. His familiarity with boating and diving also makes him uniquely qualified to be exactly the kind of person the suspects are looking for. After all, there are still millions of dollars worth of drugs lying on the ocean floor. With the combined experience and wit of both Davenport and Flowers, justice just might come to fruition. 

With Ocean Prey John Sandford proves why he remains one of my favorite crime authors writing today. Despite not being as familiar with his Davenport character, I easily fell into the story and began rooting for him from the start. The addition of Virgil Flowers to the novel adds a welcomed change of pace to the second half of the story and serves to raise the stakes and suspense level. Still, I'd hesitate to actually call this book a Virgil Flowers novel. His appearance is more of an extended cameo to the Davenport story than anything else. Nevertheless, Sandford knows how to write a twisted thriller that keeps you on your toes until the very end. The underwater scenes in particular really kept the pages turning in a way that I haven't experienced in his writing before. Clever plotting combined with two of the most fun and intriguing heroes in modern crime fiction make Ocean Prey a worthy addition to both the Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers series. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 15)

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

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What are the lengths you would go to in protecting your family? I'd walk the ends of the earth to make sure my family and friends are okay. When you think about the situations you may encounter, you might think of driving at late hours, lending/spending money, or even just being an open ear to listen. But what about things that are a little bit more morally ambiguous? What secrets would you keep? What laws would you break? How far is too far? In her latest thriller Mother May I, Joshilyn Jackson grapples with that question. 

As a mother of three, Bree rarely gets any quiet time. As she wakes up early in the morning, her two teenage daughters, infant son, and husband are all still asleep. This is her moment, a quiet time to just be with her thoughts, uninterrupted. As Bree stares out of the bedroom window, her solace is suddenly broken, giving way to first confusion and then terror. Staring back at her, just on the other side of the glass is a witch. The witch has all the notable features, wrinkled skin, wiry grey hair, cloaked in black, a look of pure menace upon her face. Hesitant to believe what she's seeing, Bree quickly glances away and back. In that instant, the witch is gone, like the remnants of a nightmare that managed a brief escape from the world of dreams. 

That odd occurrence stays with Bree as she begins her day. She takes her daughters to school, her infant in hand, and tries to forget the scare that began her morning. But she sees the witch again, this time in the parking lot of the school. Her mind must be playing tricks on her. Bree turns away from her infant son for just a moment, distracted by the goings-on at the school. That's all it takes. When she turns back around, her son is gone. Just as panic sets in, she gets the call. The unmistakable voice of the witch is on the other line. She has her son, and Bree will do whatever she asks to get him back. 

There's something both terrifying and relatable to any story involving child abduction. Recent thrillers like Adrian McKinty's The Chain and C.J. Tudor's The Other People have used a kidnapping to propel their stories, but Joshilyn Jackson takes things a step further. Mother May I sees the author not only explore the lengths a mother is willing to go to save her child but also forces that same character to come to terms with her own place in the world. Her privilege, marriage, and troubled past all come into question, adding depth to the novel that takes it beyond the typical thriller. I had the privilege of listening to the audio version of the book, a gift from the publisher, narrated by the author herself. The same passion and suspense that Jackson imbues in her writing come forth in her narration. Mother May I is everything I want from a thriller, suspenseful, quick to read, and with just enough extra depth to keep you thinking about it after you finish. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 14)


How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

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Over a year into the pandemic, things seem like they may finally be getting back to normal. I've been working from home since March of last year, but I recently learned that I'll finally be returning at the end of this month. Last weekend, I traveled out of town for a wedding. Yes, the wedding was outside and masks and social distancing were practiced, but it was nice to have some sense of normalcy after a year that has been anything but. Like many of you, I've turned to reading to help me cope with the stresses of the pandemic, escaping into fictional worlds and exploring many new authors and genres along the way. Imbolo Mbue has been on my radar ever since her debut novel Behold the Dreamers garnered rave reviews. While I never got around to reading that one, I was happy to accept her sophomore effort How Beautiful We Were to review. 

Mbue sets her novel in the fictional African village of Kosawa, a place that is rich in culture and heritage. The people there are intimately connected to the land, hunting, farming, and raising generations of families on it. Although the people of Kosawa hold a deep respect for their village, the same can't be said of the dictatorship that oversees it. The government has partnered with American oil company Pexton, allowing the corporation to mine the village of its resources with no oversight. While this partnership greatly benefits both parties, the people of Kosawa aren't reaping any rewards. Pexton is poisoning their land and killing their children. Even boiling the water has little effect on reversing the effects of Pexton's practices. The young people of the village continue to fall ill. Many of them die. Worse, there seems to be no end in sight. 

With such a dire situation in front of them, the people of Kosawa seem stuck. Pexton sends representatives to speak with them from time to time, and they voice their concerns. Pexton reassures them that they are looking into the claims of poisoning and will work with the government to find a solution. But nothing ever comes from these talks. Finally, at one of these meetings, enough is enough. Resistance begins in the unlikely form of the village fool, a man most would ignore on any other day. He takes the Pexton suits hostage, promising their release only once a resolution is reached. Thus begins the multigenerational battle between government-sanctioned big oil and the small village. 

How Beautiful We Were sees Imbolo Mbue transport her readers to a quaint village in the middle of rural Africa. She tells her David vs. Goliath story through the people at the center of it, the villagers embroiled in the fight for their land and their health, and the children who are slowly succumbing to the polluted land they are being raised on. The narrative comes together through the shifting perspectives of the various characters, casting a wide net on the village and connecting the reader to the global impact of the conflict through the most intimate lens. As in real life, this story plays out over several decades, leaving some hopeful, others jilted, and even more ready for a revolution. There's a vast scope to this novel, and Mbue deftly touches upon the personal, political, and environmental impact of the situation by leaning into her characters with a careful sense of duty to the story and the people. While I found the writing to be brilliantly descriptive and engaging, I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the novel. With such a sweeping journey throughout, I didn't feel the story reached a conclusion that adequately encapsulated everything that came before. Perhaps that is the way these things end though. Wars are waged and generations of lives are altered over natural resources. In the end, I'm not sure we can really look back and say that sum is worth the parts. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 13)

By Way of Sorrow by Robin Gigl

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I'm always on the search for the next great thriller. I just can't get enough of the suspenseful page-turning stories that keep me reading late into the night. I try to read a variety of genres, but thrillers have always been the safest bet to capture my attention. My last read was a classic sci-fi novel that I really struggled to work through, so I was eager to move on to something that had a quicker pace. Enter Robin Gigl's debut thriller By Way of Sorrow. Her publisher sent me an advanced copy to read, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Suspenseful, thoughtful, and thrilling, By Way of Sorrow was just the antidote I needed to cure my reading slump. 

Erin McCabe has just agreed to take on the highest-profile criminal case of her career. Sharise Barnes, a transgender woman, is accused of robbing and killing the son of a New Jersey State Senator. The senator's family says that Sharise tricked their son into sleeping with her so that she could rob him. Sharise has a different story. She says that when the son discovered that she wasn't born a woman, he got violent with her. Sharise stabbed him in an act of self-defense. The case is down to the word of a transgender prostitute against that of an influential politician. It isn't hard to guess which side of the story the courts will favor. 

Despite the odds being stacked against them, Erin believes that Sharise is innocent and is determined to defend her. Beyond her desire to see justice served, Erin's involvement in the case is out of something more personal. You see, Erin is a transgender woman herself. Like Sharise, Erin knows what it feels like to be a stranger in her own body. She's faced the challenge of having to live her truth or keep her family and friends. In taking on this case, Erin knows that her past will be brought to the forefront, but she can't let Sharise's case go. In Erin's eyes, the only thing separating her from Sharise is money and privilege. She has to help this woman win this case. 

The best thrillers combine a riveting plot with captivating characters. In By Way of Sorrow Robin Gigl does just that. The legal case pits the large political force against the small, marginalized minority. That dynamic of power versus weak drives most of the suspense in the novel. What elevates the story is Gigl's ability to write characters who strive to overcome their perceived weakness and turn it into strength. The main protagonist Erin is still coming to terms with being a transgender woman. She's accepted herself but struggles with how the rest of the world perceives her. Gigl imbues Erin with a sense of truth that is undeniable. She places her in real situations and allows them to play out as they would in the real world. As Erin finds her place in the world and builds her confidence in defending her case, we too gain an understanding of her character and how universal her story truly is. I was glued to the pages of this novel and can only hope that Gigl has more stories to tell in the future. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 12)

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