Archive for August 2020

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)

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow


"In the end, the courage of women can't be stamped out. And stories--the big ones, the true ones--can be caught but never killed."

Ronan Farrow's article in the New Yorker caused quite the stir when it was published in 2017. He was writing about the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. The ramifications of the allegations highlighted in his writing would go on to spur the Me Too movement, a call to arms against sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men. Of course, the road to getting that article published was far from easy. Someone like Weinstein had the motivation and means to keep his skeletons tightly packed away in his closet. In his book Catch and Kill, Farrow writes about his investigation into sexual transgressions of some of the world's most prominent men and the systems that protect them.

If I didn't know that everything Farrow writes about in this book actually happened, I'd probably have mistaken it for fiction. There's so much to Weinstein's attempts at a cover-up that seems like something directly out of an espionage thriller. As Farrow meticulously worked to vet sources, interview women, and piece together the decades of abuse and retaliation he faced roadblocks at every step. I was shocked to learn that Weinstein hired an Israeli counter-intelligence service to investigate Farrow and even follow him around New York. Would an innocent man go to such lengths to stop a story from happening?

Beyond covering Weinstein's heinous crimes, Farrow spends a good deal of the book describing the systems of power and big corporations that have prevented stories like his from surfacing. He experienced the attempts at censorship firsthand. At the time that he began investigating Weinstein, Farrow was a correspondent for NBC. He took the story to their news division and began the process of taping interviews with women. Andy Lack, head of the news division at the time, was wary of the story from the start, even claiming that there was not a story there when the evidence was overwhelming. Farrow had multiple women agree to tell their story on camera and one the record, but the higher-ups at NBC refused to bring the story to air. Eventually, he was allowed to shop the story elsewhere, and it landed at The New Yorker.

With the outing of NBC's Matt Lauer as another perpetrator of sexual misconduct in the workplace, it seems the company would have benefited from keeping the microscope of this kind of story quiet. Farrow writes a detailed account of a rape committed by Lauer that NBC was made aware of back in 2014. It is worth noting that Lauer was not fired from his role as anchor of the network's juggernaut morning program until 2017. It is easy to imagine that his tenure with the company would have continued to be protected if Farrow's article and the Me Too movement had not begun.

Catch and Kill is a thorough and riveting look into Ronan Farrow's investigation into Harvey Weinstein and the events that followed. Farrow is extremely candid about his own history with sexual misconduct (his sister Dylan has long spoken about the abuse she suffered under her adoptive father Woody Allen) and his dedication to being a voice for the countless women who have faced this all too common treatment. His book finds the perfect balance of keeping a journalistic approach to the facts of the events while interspersing a few personal anecdotes. Some of the most powerful parts are those where Farrow quotes the women and Weinstein verbatim. We see the harrowing toll that the sexual abuse has taken on the victims and the disgusting entitlement with which these powerful men felt they could keep things quiet. Three years after his initial article was published, Farrow continues to shed light on more and more stories like this one, and the number of prominent men that have perpetrated this abhorrent behavior continues to grow. Catch and Kill is a powerful look at some of the events that helped spark a movement. It is an uncomfortable but extremely necessary read.

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.
(2019, 42)

The Gatherings by Jeremy Ray


"We came here as individuals, we leave as one."

Much of my reading in July was consumed by horror novels. I've always been a fan of the genre, so it was really fun to devote so much of my reading time to it. As we entered August (how is it already August?!), I really wanted to vary my reading a bit more. I've got some non-fiction sprinkled in with a thriller or two and even a YA romance all set to be read this month. But when author Jeremy Ray reached out to me for a review of his debut short story, an apocalyptic horror story at that, I just couldn't resist it. So here I am, defaulting back to a genre that has sustained me for the past several weeks. The Gatherings is the perfect excuse for a short detour from my regularly scheduled reading. I have no doubt that you'll want to veer off your reading path to include it too.

The story opens with our heroine Emily writing an account of the past several days with the only paper and pen that she's been able to find. In reading her writing, we learn that the world as we currently know it has ceased to exist. Most people are gone, leaving the few remaining individuals to reckon with the changes that have happened and to fight to stay alive. Look up in the sky and you may be lucky enough to spot a bird or two, doing everything in its power to stay airborne and stay alive. This isn't your ordinary end of the world scenario. There was no virus, no nuclear blast, not blood-thirsty zombies hungry for your brains. If it weren't for the invasive vines covering every inch of occupiable land, you probably wouldn't even know anything was wrong.

The Gatherings were advertised as an almost magical experience. Famous celebrities, sports icons, and prominent elected officials all touted the potential for global peace and connection that could only be achieved by attending one of the events. Despite her introverted nature, Emily was convinced to attend her local gathering by her beautiful yoga instructor. The two women had quite the potential romance brewing, and Emily was not going to let her reserved nature keep her from spending time with the instructor. The couple approaches the sight of The Gathering, a sprawling orchard right outside of the city, to see the crowd assembling. The mayor begins the event by praising the wonderful effects of The Gatherings, and then the singing and dancing begin. The crowd is immediately overcome by a trance-like bliss, moving and swaying as a collective group. Emily is the only one who notices what is happening, the only one who sees the vines creeping toward the collective group, and the only one who has a chance at escaping the botanical hell that is quietly overtaking the world.

The Gatherings sees author Jeremy Ray enter the literary scene with a bang. This short story packs a punch that will leave you shaken, even after you finish the final page. The short story as a form is always a tricky balance of world-building, character development, and a fully formed narrative arc. Ray achieves all of these with the ease of a tenured storyteller, never veering too far into one area at the disservice of the other. Strong, descriptive imagery helps bring this apocalyptic world to life. Connecting this world-ending event to images of nature and classical art grounds the writing into a reality that makes the fiction all the more horrifying. Combine the terror with a relatable heroine who is easy to root for, and you've got a killer combo that maintains both suspense and pace. I read this short work in one sitting, not able to put it down before I knew how it ended. If this is any indication of the quality of work that we can expect from Jeremy Ray, then I'm really excited to see where is writing will take us next.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 36)

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin


"Maybe I shouldn't tell you. Maybe I should just leave the past alone. Let it die with me."

The small seaside town of Neapolis is seeing more excitement than it is used to. Sure, there is a fair share of tourism as the summer crowds flock to the city's beautiful beaches, but this is something completely unprecedented. One of their own, a golden child of the community, has been accused of a heinous crime. As a collegiate swimming star destined for Olympic glory, Scott Blair was a beacon of pride for the local townspeople. The fact that his family is one of the wealthiest in the area was merely the cherry on top of their reverence for the young man. Now the notoriety that comes from being the hometown of a future Olympian has soured. Scott has been accused of rape. The alleged victim and her family, also residents of the city, are taking every legal action they can against Scott. With the trial set to being, a throng of national media has come to the town, bringing a shadow of negative attention to the normally sunny town.

Rachel Krall has arrived in Neapolis as just a small part of the massive press machine. A couple years ago she started a popular crime podcast called Guilty or Not Guilty. Her reporting helped a wrongly incarcerated man walk free and propelled her podcast to a huge following. Normally Rachel uses the show to take a deep dive into trials that have already happened. The luxury of hindsight often allows her to come to conclusions that the jury or prosecutors may have missed. For her latest season, however, Rachel has something completely different in mind. Rather than dissect the trials of the past, she will place her audience directly inside of an ongoing case. She chose the story of the rape in Neapolis because rape trials seem to be one of the few cases in the justice system where the victim faces as much scrutiny as the accused.

In transit to the trial, Rachel pauses at a rest stop. When she returns to her car, she sees a note tucked between her wiper blade and windshield. The letter is from someone named Hannah who states that she has reached out to Rachel several times asking for help. You see, Hannah's sister died many years ago, and her death was ruled an accidental drowning. Hannah thinks it was actually murder. She believes that if anyone can come to the truth surrounding her sister's death, it would be Rachel. Here's the problem though. Rachel purposefully doesn't do televised interviews or publish pictures of herself. Short of hearing her voice, no one would be able to identify Rachel. This makes Hannah's presence all the more troubling. How did she know who Rachel was and why has she latched onto Rachel as some sort of savior?

Last year I read Megan Goldin's The Escape Room, a novel that saw me gaining the new skill of multitasking walking while reading. This led to more trips and stumbles than I care to admit, so I quickly abandoned this foolish attempt to not miss out on any of the action in her book. Still, my enjoyment of that book had me ready to read whatever Goldin came up with next. That turned out to be The Night Swim, a decidedly different book that Goldin's publisher generously provided to me. This new novel is described by the publisher as "electrifying and propulsive" superlatives that are accurate, but not in the traditional thriller sense. Unlike her previous work, Goldin does not use a fast-moving plot to drive the momentum of her newest offering. Instead, she uses the development of her characters to provide the propulsion that her publisher promises. That's not to say that this character focus is a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue that the strong cast of this novel actually made me enjoy it more than The Escape Room.

"That's how trials work. It's medieval. It's not about getting to the truth. it's about who can put on a better show."

The trial setting gives The Night Swim echoes of those classic John Grisham thrillers. Like Grisham, Goldin peppers in a commentary on the justice system's questionable track record with sexual assault crimes and forces the reader to face the realities of our flawed legal structures. She doesn't hold back on the graphic descriptions of the crimes that were committed. These uncomfortable passages are difficult to read but vital in providing the context of each character's convictions. Beyond the questions surrounding the rape, the novel is haunted by the customs of small-town life. This is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone else. If one person has an opinion, it becomes a universal fact for the rest of the community. That small-town Americana permeates every page of The Night Swim adding another layer of depth to this already stellar novel. The Night Swim proves Goldin's versatility as a storyteller and marks another fantastic read from this masterful author.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 35)

The Wicked Sister by Karen Dionne


"Hope. Such a meager consolation for people who have no way out."

A few years ago, Karen Dionne's novel The Marsh King's Daughter flew onto the scene and demanded to be read and loved. It had the perfect combination of thriller elements and strong characters, all brought together by a narrative that mirrored a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. I was completely enamored with the book and shared my love for it with just about anyone who would listen to me. Needless to say, I was anxiously awaiting the release of whatever Dionne came up with next. I waited and waited until earlier this year, her publisher finally reached out with an ARC of her latest novel, The Wicked Sister. I jumped at the chance to read it, and I'm pleased to say that it does not disappoint!

When we first meet Rachel, she is speaking to a spider in her room. It sounds crazy, but she's always been able to speak to animals. Well, maybe it actually is crazy. You see, she has spent the last 15 years as a patient in a mental institution, not for talking to animals, but for something much darker. The facts surrounding the events that landed her there are not exactly clear. Both of Rachel's parents were shot dead in the secluded cabin in the woods that the family called home. Whether she simply witnessed the killings or was the one who pulled the trigger is unclear. Even murkier are the days that followed. Rachel ran from the scene and was swallowed by the rugged wilderness only to emerge with no recollection of how she survived in the harsh weather and unforgiving environment. Therapy and medication have done little to open her memory. She is 26 years old and shows no signs of ever being able to leave the institution. All signs point to a lifetime of isolation in the clinic until a young reporter and brother of a fellow patient presents her with information that could change everything.

Chapters of Rachel's present day situation alternate with those of the past. Jenny is a young mother facing a difficult reality. A small neighbor boy tragically drowned in their pool, and Jenny's daughter Dianna seems to have witnessed the event. At least that's what Dianna says happened. Jenny fears something much worse. She found her daughter in soaked clothes and had to change her into a dry outfit before the authorities arrived. Determined to leave the past behind, Jenny and her husband decide to quit their jobs and take up residence at his family's cabin. Isolated from the rest of the world, Jenny hopes to provide Dianna with an upbringing that is safe and enriching. She hopes this different approach to parenting will give her daughter a chance at being normal. But as time progresses and Dianna acts out in new and often horrific ways, Jenny must face the truth. She is raising a psychopath.

In The Wicked Sister Karen Dionne writes another twisted thriller that shocks and terrifies. She does a fantastic job weaving the two seemingly separate narrative threads into a unified whole, building suspense as each perspective reveals more and more that impacts the other. The Wicked Sister is often dark and uncomfortable to read, but a story about a psychopath should be uncomfortable. Dionne relishes in the passages that make you squirm, terrified to read on but unable to look away. She balances these with strong and engaging characters that help propel the reader through even the most harrowing sections. Like her previous novel, The Wicked Sister sees Dionne use the setting of the rugged cabin and surrounding wilderness to great effect. It almost becomes another character in and of itself, a vast and foreboding spirit that permeates each page. As I started this book, I wasn't sure what I was getting into, and nothing could have prepared me for the intense journey I was beginning. The Wicked Sister cements Karen Dionne as on of my must-read authors and will no doubt be one of my favorite thrillers of the year.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 34)

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