Archive for March 2021

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)

Dune by Frank Herbert

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For as many new releases as I read each year, I always make a point to read a few classics as well. Dune Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece has been one of those "I'll get to it one of these days" books on my shelf for well over a decade. If I'm being honest, I think I was just intimidated by it. The book is lengthy and not really in a genre that I normally gravitate toward. I've started the novel several times, become overwhelmed by the sheer scope and amount of characters, and quickly moved on to something more my speed. Determined to see this challenge though, I'm happy to report that I've finally managed to tackle Dune. 

The novel centers around the boy Paul Atreides. In terms of pedigree, the child comes from a background that almost predetermined his destiny. He is a chosen one of sorts, and the novel opens with him facing a test of his worthiness, a challenge to prove his status. This opening scene sets the tone for the journey to come and foreshadows the larger obstacles that young Paul will soon face as those less worthy than him attempt to cheat and betray their way to his place. Along the way, Paul too will question his place of privilege within the vast world. 

Paul's place in this world stems from the power of his parents. His father leads a group on a desert planet that is rich in spice, a mystical almost drug-like resource that brings wealth and influence to those who control it. Naturally, everyone else is eager to take control of this valuable resource. They see Paul as a potential vulnerability to the rule of the family and will stop at nothing to take advantage of this perceived weakness. 

When reviewing a book like this one, I think it is important to first view it within the context of the time it was published in. Dune was first released in 1965, and Herbert's novel was clearly influential to the science fiction genre as a whole. It is clear to see this influence in the popular novels and films that followed this work. The sheer scope of the world, characters, and politics is quite remarkable. That being said, I just didn't enjoy reading it. In fact, I found many of the same elements that many praise the novel for to be the main detriments. While the world of Dune is sprawling, the novel spends so much time building this world that not much actually happens. I kept waiting for a turning point, but this story never really arrived anywhere. To be fair, this is only the first book in a series. After hours spent reading this one hoping for something more, I have little motivation to pick up another. 

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

(2021, 11)

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

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"We artists are powerless against our passions."

Music has always been a huge part of my life. I've played piano since I was a child and hold multiple degrees in the subject. I've always had a soft spot for the works of George Gershwin, a composer and performer who bridged the gap between classical and popular music at the start of the 20th century.  His ability to mix elements of jazz within the more traditional sounds of an orchestra allowed his works to transcend time and place. His famous Rhapsody in Blue is still played in concert halls today. I'd bet that even if you've never heard of the composer or his music, you'd recognize the shrill exuberance of the opening clarinet solo from that piece in an instant. When author Mitchell James Kaplan offered me a copy of his latest novel Rhapsody, I was excited to read this historical fiction based upon one of my favorite subjects. 

The novel is centered around Kay Swift, a renowned composer and pianist in her own right. We meet her just as she's heard George Gershwin's new piece Rhapsody in Blue for the first time. The raucous performance is quite the departure from the sounds her classically trained ears are tuned to admire, but she can't deny the appeal of the music. Days later, Kay finds herself still thinking about the piece, even using her perfect pitch to play the bits of the piano part that she remembers. The exhilaration she finds in this music allows her mind to wander a bit from the doldrums of being a woman of high society. Kay studied music at the college that would one day become known as Julliard and played in a trio that gained quite the acclaim among the New York social circle. These days, her musical endeavors are somewhat of an afterthought. Kay dutifully supports her husband and attends the very parties she used to entertain. 

Kay's relationship with her husband has always been one built from expectation rather than love. She married the man from a prominent family and set off on fulfilling the life that was expected of her. Kay knows her husband strays from their marriage when he travels. In fact, the couple has agreed it is in their best interest to seek the lust of others. Kay doesn't act on this arrangement until she catches the attention of Gershwin. What starts as an infatuation over music soon turns into a full-on affair. For Kay, this relationship is the chance at the kind of happiness she's only dreamed of having, a bond that intertwines passion for the arts with devotion to each other. But George sees things a bit differently. He's still a prominent man in an age where parties and excess are the norms. Kay's sense of loyalty wavers between two men, both of who seem keen on not returning the fidelity. 

In Rhapsody Mitchell James Kaplan draws on the rich musical and cultural history of the Jazz Age to inform his brilliant fiction. He sticks mostly to the facts, only turning to fiction to imagine the dialogue between characters and slightly alter dates to keep the narrative flowing. From the opening chapter, I was drawn in by the rich descriptions of the music. Kaplan's ability to express the sounds of the time through written words helps to place the reader directly into the same rooms as the characters. We are enveloped by the sights and sounds. Once placed into this point in history, it is the characters who propel us through the story. The complex relationship between Kay Swift and her lover George Gershwin is brought to life through Kaplan's carefully drawn narrative, paving the way for an emotional connection to a story that until now has only lived in the history books. I was completely captivated by Rhapsody. Kaplan has written a radiant homage to a bygone era, a love letter to music and the people who create it. 

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

(2021, 10)

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

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 “They can break, but they can't erase. They can build but they can't bury us.”

When you think of home, what comes to mind? For me, home is the place where I grew up. It is the house that I shared with my parents and brothers for the majority of my life. It is the neighbors who watched me grow up. Home is the community that I was a part of, the schools,  the church, that corner gas station that everyone stopped at on their way to and from work, the restaurant where you'd always run into someone you knew. Over the years, my home changed. I moved away and started a life of my own, and the place from my memory kept evolving without me. What I remember as empty fields by my house have turned into sprawling subdivisions. There are stoplights where a humble stop sign once sat. And of course, the people have changed too. The home of my memory is just that, a memory of a time and place that I once knew. In her novel When No One is Watching, author Alyssa Cole explores the evolution of home in a thriller that is as thoughtful as it is suspenseful. 

The only home Sydney Green has ever known is Brooklyn. She's taken an active role in her community, especially as her mother became unable to do so. Sydney visits with her neighbors, most of whom she's grown up around, and even oversees the community garden. But the home she's known and loves is facing unprecedented change. The gentrification of her community is unfolding before Sydney's very eyes. High-rise condos are filling vacant lots, and many of her longtime neighbors have sold out and moved away without even a goodbye. Try as she might, it seems like Sydney can do little to save her home. 

Theo is struggling to settle into his new home. The Brooklyn neighborhood that he recently moved to with his girlfriend has potential, but there's still a long way to go before it will really feel like home. The neighborhood is split between the well-off white families who are buying up property in droves and the black families who are just trying to hang onto what little piece of the neighborhood that they have left. People like Theo's girlfriend certainly don't help matters. She seems to think that the world and everyone in it revolve around her, the living embodiment of privilege. Theo, on the other hand, is bound and determined to actually get to know his neighbors. He makes his way to a neighborhood meeting and is surprised to find that he's the only white person there. Despite their differences though, Theo and his neighbors (Sydney included) have something in common. They're each harboring nefarious secrets, and these secrets are all about to come to light. 

Alyssa Cole strikes the perfect balance between social commentary and paranoid thriller with When No One is Watching. The novel begins as a fairly straightforward story of two people coming to terms with their role in the gentrification of a community. Both of the main characters read as genuine portrayals of how people would react to their situations. Sydney is clinging to her past and her history while Theo is trying to make the place his own. By bringing the two together, Cole allows her readers to discover contrasting perspectives in a way that is both timely and thoughtful. It seems that Americans are finally getting more comfortable talking about race and privilege, and fiction like this helps us to continue that conversation in the real world. 

Intermixed with these more serious subjects is a thriller aspect that sees quiet coincidences bloom into shocking revelations. In the hands of a lesser author, the juxtaposition between these drastically different elements could be jarring, but Cole writes them with an ease that allowed even this seasoned thriller reader to suspend disbelief and fall under the spell of her words. I've found myself thinking less about the conclusion of this story than the ideas presented before it, but I can't deny that Cole has packaged a nuanced commentary about race relations in America into a story that is compulsively readable. When No One is Watching is a thought-provoking page-turner, the kind of book that simply demands to be read. The themes in Cole's book continue a conversation that is vital to bringing empathy, understanding, and ultimately unity, all things that remind me of what it takes to turn a community into a home. 

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

(2021, 9)

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