The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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A couple of years ago, I was blown away by Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. That award-winning novel combined the dark history of slavery with fantastical surrealism that completely stunned me. Whitehead cleverly imagined a world where the underground railroad was an actual railroad that carried slaves through a tunnel system under America. Each stop illustrated a different time period of African American oppression. That monumental novel was the kind of read that lingered in the back of my mind and left me wanting more. In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead's latest novel, he forgoes the fantasy of his previous work in favor of historical fiction that stays rooted in the harsh realities of its subject matter.

Elwood Curtis is coming into his own as an upstanding citizen within segregated Tallahassee. He never really knew his parents, but his stern grandmother has ensured he toes the line. He diligently commits to his studies in school and works hard after school as a shopkeep. At night, Elwood plays a record of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the hope of equal rights. Emboldened by the words of Dr. King and the no-nonsense guidance of his grandmother, Elwood's future is looking bright. He's even been selected to attend college classes. Unfortunately, Elwood is about to get a grim reminder of how unjust the world can be.

A classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time leaves Elwood charged with a crime he didn't commit. Rather than be imprisoned in the traditional sense, Elwood is sent to The Nickel Academy, a school that claims to rehabilitate troubled boys. He tries to make the best of a bad situation. The manicured grounds and meticulously maintained buildings of Nickel shine with the promise of providing the young men with a structured path to reentering society. To Elwood, it seems simple enough.  If you follow the rules and do the time, you will be set free. In reality, Nickel follows the same cruel pattern of corruptness, racism, violence, and torture that was all too common during the Jim Crowe era. The bright optimism that permeates Elwood's being is about to be shattered by the malice of racist oppression.

The Nickel Boys sees Colson Whitehead return to many of the themes that were in The Underground Railroad in a way that is decidedly different from that novel. There's no magical railroad to lead Elwood to safety. He's stuck in the agonizing hell of Nickel, and we live every moment of that pain and hopelessness with him. Whitehead based Nickel on the real and equally appalling Dozier School for Boys which only ceased operation back in 2011. Since the closing, mass graves of the abused youth who spent time there have been discovered, adding another ripple to the United State's dark history of racism.

Whitehead deserves much credit for his ability to balance the horrors of Nickel with the youthful antics of the students inhabiting it. Each scene that humanized the boys as normal, relatable kids only made the scenes of unflinching torture all the more harrowing. On a larger scale, Nickel can be seen as a metaphor to the United States itself. From the outside looking in, there's the pristine exterior of promise and hope. It is only in the shadows of the inside that the darker proclivities are revealed. Stories like the one told in The Nickel Boys are essential to understanding American history and the struggles with race and oppression that exist to this day. Through his splendid writing, Colson Whitehead continues to shine his authorial light upon these dark, but fundamental subjects.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 28)


The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

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"WELCOME TO THE ESCAPE ROOM. YOUR GOAL IS SIMPLE. GET OUT ALIVE."

Any reader of my blog will know that I can't pass up a good thriller. There is something about the discovery that takes place as you race to the finish of a twisted read that keeps me coming back each time. The best in the genre are the books that hook you from the beginning and demand to be read.  I accepted an offer to read The Escape Room from the publisher, and the rest was history. My eyes were glued to this book from start to finish.  If you are looking for your next "can't put down" read, then Megan Goldin's The Escape Room is the book for you!

The setup is simple enough. A group of high power Wall Street investment bankers are summoned to complete a team-building activity at an under-construction office complex. Normally the elite group wouldn't pause their busy lives for something as trivial as team building, but the company is rumored to be planning a massive round of layoffs. Their affluent lifestyles can't risk a layoff. They begrudgingly enter the elevator to begin the escape room challenge. But things aren't what they seem. Stuck in a darkened elevator with some of the most ruthless, win at all cost people in the world, they soon begin the fight for their lives.

Chapters of the elevator escape room alternate with flashbacks focussing on Sara Hall. The young woman has a prestigious MBA from a fantastic school, but those expensive pieces of paper are a dime a dozen in the high stakes world of Wall Street. She's moved back home to help with her ill father. Staggering debt and no job opportunities in sight leave Sara waitressing to make ends meet. Her latest expensive trip into the city for a job interview seems to be as hopeless as the rest. As she rides down the elevator for her trip back home, her resume catches the eye of a man in the elevator. He's in a high up position at another financial institution, and he agrees to take a look at her resume. Like something out of a dream, Sara finds herself with a high-paying job with one of the most ruthless teams in the business. Some of their practices are morally questionable at best, but the money flying into her bank account is too great to pass up. "Success is not for the squeamish."

The Escape Room sees Megan Goldin writing the kind of breakneck read that is too captivating to pass up. For the day it took me to read, I kept my eyes glued to my kindle until I was finished. As a quick aside, reading this one also forced me to become oddly proficient at reading while walking. Just because my dog needed to be fed didn't mean I had to stop reading! This is escapist fiction at its finest. To Goldin's credit, the pacing and suspense are so well done that I easily suspended my disbelief of even the wildest plot points. Saying more about where the characters go and how they evolve would rob you of the chance of discovering things for yourself. Still, trust me when I say this is the kind of fast-paced entertainment that thriller readers crave. If you're looking for more believable fiction, this is probably too far out there for you. But if you're willing to drop all pretensions and just enjoy the ride, The Escape Room is a solid choice.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 27)

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

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There aren't many buildings as illustrious and glamorous as The Bartholomew. With breathtaking views of Central Park, an esteemed list of wealthy residents, and a history that is intertwined with the city of New York, it is one of the most sought after places to live in the city. Like any old building, The Bartholomew comes with its own set of rumors and mysteries. Beneath the pristine surface of the place lies whispers of darker secrets. Don't let that deter you. Go ahead and enter...if you dare!

For young Jules, a stay in The Bartholomew has been a lifelong dream. She used to read about the building in her favorite novel Heart of a Dreamer. Jules and her sister clung to their tattered paperback copy of the novel, imagining a life behind the walls of the Bartholomew, a life of wealth and glamor. But those were just silly childhood fantasies. The real world doesn't work that way. Instead, Jules's sister tragically disappeared and her grief-stricken parents died shortly after. Her boyfriend cheated on her, she lost her job, and life just couldn't get much worse. Jules is all alone in the big city. She has no money, no family, and no hope.

When Jules sees an ad for an apartment sitter, she eagerly responds. She desperately needs the money and wouldn't mind vacating her friend's couch for someplace else to live. When she arrives at the address listed in the ad, Jules is shocked to be standing in front of The Bartholomew. As she tours the property with the landlady, she soaks in all the details of the place that, until now, only existed in her imagination. She is so enamored with the building that she easily dismisses the peculiar rules that accompany her stay. There are to be no visitors, no staying away from the building, and no speaking to the other residents. These are easy enough to follow, especially when she is getting paid in cash at the end of each week. A few days into her stay, the luster of The Bartholomew begins to give way to more nefarious events. The rumors that have always lingered about the building just might be true. For Jules, escaping this torrid history might already be too late.

In Lock Every Door, Riley Sager once again writes a highly original thriller that hits all the right beats. This third novel by the author continues his penchant for strong female protagonists, twisted plots, and a pace that will have you reading into all hours of the night. This is the second book I've read by Sager, and I really appreciate the way lends his signature style to stories that are vastly different from each other. He brings a freshness to popular fiction that is simply unmatched. This novel plays into the horror genre but isn't overtly graphic at any point. I was hooked from the beginning and was completely blindsided by the twisty end. With Lock Every Door, Riley Sager has become a "must-read" author for me. I can't wait to see what he conjures up next!

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 26)

The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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With the influx of review requests from authors and publishers alike, it has become a rare occasion for me to stumble upon a new book with no preconception of what it will be. Such is the case with my latest read, The Body Lies by Jo Baker. I was browsing Goodreads when I saw a section of recommendations based upon other books I have read. Readers of my reviews will know I love a good thriller, so this title immediately caught my eye. I elected not to read any other reviews of the book, only the publisher's brief summary. More literary in nature than your average summer thriller release, The Body Lies is the sleeper hit of the genre this season.

Set in the dreary UK, The Body Lies begins with the main character assaulted by a man one night. The pregnant woman is walking home when she sees the man race past her. Before she has time to comprehend what is happening, he has her knocked to the ground and is on top of her. When he is finished with his deed, the woman is left cold, trembling, and unable to will herself to stand. Like countless other women who face the shame and horror that comes with an assault, this one quietly continues with her life. She goes on to have her child and dutifully fills the role of wife and mother. Still, the trauma of the evening stays with her. She longs for some kind of escape.

Three years later, the perfect opportunity for a fresh start presents itself. The woman is offered a teaching job at a college away from London. Her husband is not fully on board with the idea of leaving his own teaching job, so the couple agrees to live separate, still married but in different homes. The woman is eager to teach literature, a passion she hasn't fully explored since her novel did less than stellar. When a colleague takes ill, the woman is set up to teach a course in creative writing. She has little time to prepare the course but approaches it as a chance to truly make her mark at the university.

The small class is comprised of a group of ambitious young authors, each bringing their own unique voice to the table. From the variety of conceptual short stories, fantasy, and crime rises a standout voice that is as compelling as it is frightening. Nick is not certain what his writing will become, but there is no denying his talent. His grim words of obsession and violence lift off of the pages, earning the revere of his classmates and cautious interest of his teacher. For her part, the woman is not sure what to make of Nick. She is especially concerned about the rules that he has set for his writing. One, in particular, chills her to her core. Nick only writes about things that are true.

In The Body Lies author Jo Baker elegantly touches upon the ramifications of assault, obsession, and creative expression. There is a thinly veiled element of mystery layered into the book, but don't expect a breakneck thriller. Instead, Baker writes a brooding character piece that brims with an ever-mounting edge of psychological suspense. While the book is on the shorter side, it is a slow read that takes its time in laying all of its cards out on the table. Baker combines the unnamed narrator's voice with direct quotes from Nick's writing, allowing her reader to see both sides of the character's evolutions before they combine. The Body Lies is literary suspense at its finest, the kind of novel that stays on your mind for days after the final page. While this was my first read by Jo Baker, it certainly will not be my last.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 25)

Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand

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I can't believe that it is already July. Where has 2019 gone?! Even though I had to work this Independence Day, I still snuck in some time to continue my summer reading. Last winter, I took a chance on Elin Hilderbrand's Winter series. Her novels perfectly encapsulated the feeling of the season. I binged all four books within a few days and vowed to read more of her books whenever I could. Enter Summer of '69, Hilderbrand's latest release and first foray into historical fiction. Just as the Winter series entranced me, this latest book quickly drew me in and took me on a great journey.

The novel sees Hilderbrand blend the rich history of 1969 with her usual approach of following the drama of a family. She deftly presents this history through the lens of the extended Levin family. They root the overarching themes in an easy to digest and relatable family drama. The family has a tradition of visiting Nantucket island each summer to spend time with matriarch Kate's mother. Despite each individual's own reservations about this yearly vacation, they still value the time they have to spend together. But this year, things just aren't going to proceed as planned.

Eldest daughter Blair is staying home this year. She and her rocket scientist husband are expecting their first child, and she is simply too pregnant to travel. Plus, her husband is busy working on the imminent lunar landing. Middle daughter Kirby is the rebel of the family. After spending time protesting and walking with MLK, she has decided to spend time with her friend's family on Martha's Vinyard. It should serve as a check on her privilege and give her some much-needed rest before she heads back to nursing school. The lone boy in the family Tiger can't take a vacation for a completely different reason. Like most other healthy, young men his age, he's been drafted to Vietnam.  This leaves the youngest daughter Jessie to fend for herself as she spends the summer with her mother and grandmother.

I never thought I would enjoy anything Hilderbrand wrote more than the Winter series, but Summer of '69 might just take the cake. Simply put, this is what summer reading is all about. Hilderbrand writes a compelling drama with a brisk pace, all set before the backdrop of one of the most significant years in American history. Hilderbrand takes some authorial license with some of the exact histories, but only ever in the service of providing a more accurate emotional payoff for her characters. She doesn't veer from the tougher aspects of our history. Hilderbrand tackles racism, sexism, and alcoholism in a way that his honest and ever reverential to the people who face them. Summer of '69 is a pure delight to read and serves as a nearly flawless summer read.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 24)




I Know Who You Are by Alice Feeney

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Sometimes things are just too good to be true. As an avid reader, I love to browse my local library's digital catalog. I usually listen to audiobooks on my daily commute, so I've grown to love the options my library has available. My only complaint with this free resource is that sometimes the wait to read or listen to newer releases can be unbearable. Even 5 or 6 people waiting for a book ahead of you can equate to months of waiting to read. Because of this, I was excited to see that Alice Feeney's latest novel I Know Who You Are was available to listen to. I've had her popular Sometimes I Lie on hold for months now, so I eagerly downloaded her latest. I thought it was my lucky day, but after finishing the novel I realize there may have been a reason no one else had downloaded it.

The novel alternates between two time periods. In the present day sections, we meet Aimee Sinclair, a budding actress who is on the brink of becoming a huge star. She comes home to discover that her husband is missing. His phone is still there and it doesn't look like he packed any clothes, but he is nowhere to be found. The couple's relationship had been on the rocks for a while, but he would never leave without saying something. As the investigation into his disappearance starts to mount, Aimee finds herself turning from worried wife to suspect number one. After years of pretending to be other people, Aimee isn't sure who she really is. Could she be responsible for her husband vanishing?

The flashback sections of the novel see Aimee as a six-year-old. She has an abusive father, so she often turns to her brother for refuge. One day as she is out wandering the streets, she encounters an older woman. The woman convinces her that Aimee is lost, so she should come with the woman to contact her parents. Aimee complies, leaving with the woman and never seeing her family again.

I Know Who You Are sees Alice Feeney play out two storylines into a thriller that tries too hard to shock. I was initially intrigued by the premise of the novel, a kind of Room meets Gone Girl setup, but Feeney seemed unsure of where her story was going. She kept throwing in new narrative darts seemingly hoping that any of them would stick. The end result is a story that moves at a rapid pace but with no clear direction. There's an obligatory twist at the end that really shocked me with pure disgust at the revelation. I'm all for the dark or taboo subject matter, but this one wasn't earned. Because I wasn't truly invested in the character or the narrative, the twist came off as simply distasteful. Clearly, I didn't love this novel. I'll hold out hope that Sometimes I Lie is as good as everyone says it is, but I Know Who You Are did not live up to my expectations.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 23)

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