Archive for August 2022

Camino Island by John Grisham

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John Grisham holds a special place on my bookshelf. I remember really getting into his books during high school, a time when I was finding my own way as a reader. His ability to provide terse legal thrillers that had a great pace but also featured relatable characters proved to be an irresistible combination. In more recent years, I've made a concerted effort to read a wider variety of genres and authors, but I still come back to Grisham's writing on occasion. His novel Camino Island, a book about a literary heist, has been on my TBR list forever. This week I had some extra time in between publisher-provided books, so I took advantage and finally cracked it open. 

The novel opens with a daring group of thieves about to make a meticulous heist from the vaults of the Princeton Library. Their target is the original, hand-written manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The American literary icon's work is estimated to be worth millions, something the thieves are prepared to stop at nothing to steal. As luck would have it, their well-prepared heist goes off without a hitch. The group makes off with the manuscripts, leaving the university and authorities desperate to get them back. 

Enter our unlikely hero Mercer Mann. She was once the author of a novel that became a critical darling but never found true financial success. In the years following, Mercer struggled to write a follow-up, and any chance at building a career as a published author seems to have gone by the wayside. When we meet her, she has lost her job, has no prospects for the future, and is financially crippled by student loans. Mercer is shocked then when she is approached by a mysterious woman. She's even more rattled by the woman's request. The woman is part of a small unit within law enforcement, and she wants Mercer to go undercover to help them find the lost Fitzgerald manuscripts. 

The more recent output from John Grisham has been pretty hit or miss, but I was happy to discover that Camino Island is a hit. I mean let's be honest for a minute, a book about books is always a win! The setting in a small tropical town means that everyone knows everyone else, a fact that helps deepen the secrecy behind the mystery. There are whispers amongst the townspeople, but it is up to our main character to plant herself among them, build their trust, and uncover the truth behind all of the rumors. Grisham is at his best when he combines a compelling plot with great characters. Camino Island sees the author in peak form. This is everything I want from a summer read. There's a sequel to the book that was published a few years ago, so it is already going on my list of books to read next summer. 

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

(2022, 37)

Old Country by Matt Query & Harrison Query

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Moving to the remote property in rural Idaho was supposed to be a fresh start for couple Harry and Sasha. Harry was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and he and Sasha felt that leaving their big city jobs for the respite of country living would be just the antidote they needed. They couldn't have been luckier with the property they found. Their beautiful home sat amongst 40 acres of sprawling forest and bountiful meadows. It was the perfect home. Their neighbors, the elderly couple Dan and Lucy who farmed the land next to theirs for decades provided a warm welcome to the area and promised to help them acclimate to their new life. It wasn't until Harry and Sasha met their neighbors for dinner that their paradise began to crumble. 

The evening started just as you would expect it to. Pleasantries were exchanged among food and drink, and Dan and Lucy ensured their young acquaintances felt supported. It was when they separated into different rooms, Dan with Harry and Lucy with Sasha, that things turned odd. Dan pulled out a binder and handed it to Harry. He went off proclaiming about how the land was cursed and that spirits would make their presence known. As long as Harry and Sasha complete the corresponding tasks to specific signs, the spirits will do no harm. Harry grabbed Sasha and stormed away from Dan and Lucy's house, not sure if these old wives' tales are some kind of delirium or worse, a sick joke. Either way, he will have nothing to do with any kind of paranormal nonsense. By spring, the couple has all but forgotten about the alleged curse. But then the first indication of the evil appears, just as Dan and Lucy foretold. Like it or not, Harry and Sasha are about to live through their worst nightmare. 

Old Country by Matt and Harrison Query had quite the unlikely beginning. The genesis of this horror story began as a Reddit thread posted to the notorious r/NoSleep. Matt Query posted to the site for years before his short story "My Wife and I Bought A Ranch" went viral. Matt turned to his screenwriting brother Harrison to flesh out the story into a full novel. Grand Central Publishing, who also provided me with an advanced copy of the work for review, published Old Country, and the book has already been picked up by Netflix for an adaptation. I'm an unabashed horror junkie, so I had high expectations for the book. It drew me in from the very start, expertly combining an already eerie setting with a legend that seemed just believable enough to get under my skin. The pace was quick, the scares were plentiful, and the characters were given enough depth to ground all of the paranormal into a sense of reality. Everything came together into a conclusion that was as terrifying as it was satisfying. If you're looking for a spooky read, go ahead and add this one to your TBR. You won't regret it!

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2022, 36)

Haven by Emma Donoghue

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 "God is our pilot now, and we'll go wherever his breath blows us."

In the early part of the 7th century, a group of monks at the monastery Cluain Mhic NĂ³is are visited by a living saint. Artt's reputation as a man of God precedes him. He's known as a strict servant of the Lord, a man whose faith saw him survive the plague and travel around the globe spreading the word. His opinion of the monks at this particular monastery is that they've become lazy, victims of routine and comfort. Criticisms aside, Artt has come to this place to reveal his vision, a direct message from God showing an island in the western sea. Per divine instruction, Artt will take two companions with him on a journey to find the island and form a new monastery. 

"We are all hurrying towards heaven, and I'm only trying to lighten your load."

The first monk selected to accompany Artt on his prophetic expedition is the elder Cormac, a seasoned storyteller with a body that is starting to falter in his old age. What he lacks in physical strength, he makes up for in wisdom. Trian, the second monk selected to travel with the saint, was abandoned in the monastery at age 13. The young monk is wistful and shy but is eager to follow the reverent Artt to the ends of the earth in service of God's plan. While it is standard for monks to live a meager life of relative poverty, this trio is eschewing even the most basic of provisions for their trip. Artt reminds his companions that God will provide everything they need, so the group faithfully sets sail on their quest to find this promised land. 

"I tell you, Brothers, what seems impossible to us is easy to him."

I have to admit, I normally wouldn't go running to read a historical fiction novel about 7th-century monks. As I read the summary of Emma Donoghue's latest novel Haven, I feared that I may have finally run into a book from the author that just wouldn't be for me. Because her previous novel The Pull of the Stars ended up being my favorite read of 2020, I decided to go against my better judgment and accept a copy of Haven from the publisher. Like her previous book, Haven plants the reader firmly amongst the action, giving us insights into the thoughts and motivation of each of the three main characters as they face an impossible test of faith. It took me a bit longer than I would have hoped to find a rhythm in this writing, but once I was in I couldn't let go. 

Donoghue revels in the mundane, drawing quiet introspective revelations as the monks work to survive on the remote island that they have been called to. The act of maintaining the sabbath while finding food, water, and shelter, sees the plot find a ritualistic repetition akin to the very prayers that the characters chant each day. Make no mistake, these are men of their era, afflicted with blind faith and willful lack of logic that I often found to be frustrating. Had they only thought of the severity of the journey they were embarking upon, much of the conflict in the novel would be unnecessary. Donoghue's commitment to faithfully portraying the mindsets of the men in this time means that they truly remain optimistic that God will give them everything they need, even as cracks in the vision that brought them to this place begin to form. Things come to a head as the threesome each succumbs to their own mortal flaws, bringing the book to a crescendo that seems inevitable if a bit unsatisfying. Haven won't go down as my favorite book by the author, but it is nonetheless another example of her ability to craft a work of historical, emotional, and literary heft. 

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

(2022, 35)

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

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Imagine for a moment that you are a 19-year-old student who has just written your debut novel. You've accomplished what few at your age could dream of, but you're just getting started. The esteemed publisher Alfred A. Knopf picks up your work and begins producing a sizeable first run in hardcover. Pretty great, right? As if things couldn't be going any better you get a call from none other than the queen herself, Oprah Winfrey. She tells you that she's read your book and wants it to be the next pick in her famous book club, all but assuring your debut novel will be a best seller. It may sound too good to be true, but this is the whirlwind reality of author Leila Mottley whose debut novel Nightcrawling was released back in June. I've had a publisher-provided copy of the book on my stack for a while now, so I finally cracked it open to read. 

At only 17, life for Kiara has already been a challenge. Her father is out of the picture, and her mother is currently incarcerated at a psychiatric correctional facility. This has left Kiara and her elder brother Marcus responsible for keeping their lives together. Money is tight. Marcus spends his days chasing his dreams of being the next great rap superstar, making no other effort to have any income. Their East Oakland apartment luxuriously named The Regal-Hi is anything but luxurious. No, Kiara knows that she lives in poverty. She's resorted to crashing funerals just to have a shot of eating a free meal. 

In addition to her tumultuous attempt to keep her own family afloat, Kiara has taken a neighboring boy under her wing. His mother has been tightly wound into the grips of addiction, often leaving her son alone for days on end. She has little time to mother the boy, let alone keep a job or pay the rent. Kiara diligently does her best to shield the child from the reality of his strife, allowing the boy to stay at her apartment and doing everything she can to keep him on the straight and narrow. Then comes the devastating news that her landlord is hiking up the rent. With the impending due date hovering over her shoulders, Kiara must find a way to make ends meet. 

What does a high school student do to bear the weight of an entire family? It happens quickly at first, almost as if it were just a dream. Kiara first has a chance encounter with a man at a bar. He initiates contact, following her out of the establishment. He says that he knows why she is there and what she wants. Kiara is afraid to admit to herself that she knows exactly what he means, but desperation can be quite the motivator. She's disgusted with herself in the aftermath. She never would have thought that she would sell out her body like she did, but she can't deny that the money she made will help her situation. What goes from a "just this once" occurrence soon grows, placing Kiara and her entire family into a precarious underworld of crime and agony. 

It is hard to comprehend that Nightcrawling is a debut novel. Mottley has crafted a narrative that is fully realized, vivid, and emotionally complex. It is a masterwork of literature akin to the best writing from the most seasoned and celebrated authors. I kept having to remind myself that this brilliant writing came from such a new voice. Mottley derived the inspiration for the book from a true story of a young girl who was physically and mentally taken advantage of by a group of corrupt police officers. She takes the crumbs of this premise and weaves it into a sobering portrait of poverty in America. The harshness of the reality depicted is balanced by the relationships between the protagonist and other characters. The dark and explicitly adult problems and scenarios that Kiara encounters are juxtaposed against the subtle reminders that she is still a child. This isn't an easy read from a content perspective, but Mottley's writing soars off of the pages, keeping a brisk pace through even the most gut-wrenching passages. Nightcrawling is a phenomenal debut from a promising author who is worthy of all of the hype and praise that she has already received. 

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

(2022, 34)

Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

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It finally happened. After nearly 3 years of dodging the proverbial bullet, I finally tested positive for COVID-19 last week. It took me about a week to overcome the worst symptoms, and I thankfully only have a lingering nasty cough. However, one benefit to being forced to isolate is that I've had ample time to catch up on reading. Megan Goldin's novels The Escape Room and The Night Swim were some of the best thrillers that I read in their respective years of release. This put her newest book Stay Awake, out today, among my most anticipated reads this year. Lucky for me, Goldin's publisher generously provided me with a copy of Stay Awake to review. I found the work to be the perfect form of escapism as I suffered through the worst symptoms of this illness. 

Liv Reese awakes in the back of a taxi having more questions than answers. Her amnesia is only further pronounced as she steps up to the door of her apartment and is greeted by strangers. Who are these people in her home? The tenants seem as confused as she is, and they quickly close the door. Liv goes into her pocket to retrieve her phone but instead pulls out a knife covered in blood. Her phone is nowhere to be found. Liv's hands are adorned with hastily scribbled messages like a random phone number, "Don't open the door", and most startling "STAY AWAKE". 

Incoming homicide detective Darcy Halliday has been partnered with department veteran Jack Lavelle. Beyond the usual newcomer/veteran dynamic at play, the pairs' boss has tasked Lavelle with vetting Halliday for future promotions. Halliday has a history of working for the state department, a past that is understandably shrouded in mystery. Halliday and Lavelle don't have much time to get to know each other before they are called to the scene of a gruesome murder. The brutal stabbing would be bad enough, but it is the message scrawled on the window of the room in the victim's blood that chills everyone to their core. STAY AWAKE!

Megan Goldin is fast becoming known for her ability to produce compelling standalone thrillers, and Stay Awake further cements that status. She's crafted the perfect unreliable narrator in a character who loses her short-term memory each time that she sleeps. The novel alternates perspectives between this woman who is attempting to compile the events that lead her to this point with that of the detectives investigating a murder in which she is the prime suspect. Goldin sprinkles in flashbacks to her protagonist's past, giving the reader insight into the person she used to be. This provides some much-needed depth to a character who is otherwise stuck in a repetitive loop of insomnia and paranoia. The short chapters and fast pace make this the kind of can't-put-it-down read that I've come to expect from Goldin. I did see the ending coming well before the big reveal, but it did little to deter my enjoyment of getting to that point. Stay Awake is another solid thriller from an author who is already one of my go-to writers in the genre. 

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

(2022, 33)

Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour

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How do you choose your next read? I'm typically a mood reader. I choose whichever book strikes my fancy at any given moment. This strategy helps me from getting burned out on reading, but it also means that some books that I've agreed to review for publishers have to wait until I'm in the right mindset to read them. Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour is one such casualty. I received an ebook and audiobook of the novel well before it was published in May, but the queer coming-of-age story wasn't what I wanted to read then. I've been more about a quick-paced plot as of late, so thrillers have been my go-to read for the last couple of weeks. Still, I've found that books in that genre just aren't giving me the character development that I can latch on to.  So here I am, in the perfect mood to read a book like Yerba Buena. 

Sara is looking for an escape. She finally felt like she could accept herself when her secret girlfriend was found dead. Either unwilling or unable to cope with that loss at such a young age, Sara did what any enterprising teenager would do. She ran away from home. In her attempt to put the traumas of her past behind her, she encountered new ordeals that would haunt her into her future. All this is to say that Sara carried a lot of baggage as she entered adulthood. Years later she found a kind of safe haven and peace with her job as a bartender at the trendy restaurant Yerba Buena. It is here that her path would collide with Emilie, changing the trajectory of her life forever. 

Emilie is feeling stuck. She's been in college for seven years, cycling through five different majors only to feel as if she still hasn't found her path in life. Low on time, patience, and money, she randomly takes up a job with a flower shop. Emilie finds refuge in the task of floral arrangement, a process that allows her creativity to flourish while also earning her some much-needed money. As her obvious talent reveals itself, she is entrusted with arranging bouquets for different clients. One of these clients just so happens to be the restaurant Yerba Buena. 

Yerba Buena sees successful YA author Nina LaCour successfully transition to a work geared more for adult audiences. There are still echoes of her writing for younger readers, especially in moments that show the main characters before they are adults. In this case, that works to LaCour's benefit, imbuing the young characters with an authenticity that I was immediately able to connect with. The novel is as complex as the people who inhabit it, a work that tackles topics of sexuality, coming of age, and family trauma through layered scenarios, time periods, and relationships. This is a slow burn of a read. LaCour allows her story to unfold at a natural pace, freeing her characters and their emotions to dictate what comes next. This means that the characters, not the plot, drive the momentum of the novel. It was a bit of an adjustment for this seasoned thriller reader, but I was ultimately happy to have this change of pace. Yerba Buena works as an expertly written romance and coming-of-age story that brims with a purity that is rarely found in character-driven works. 

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

(2021, 32)

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