Archive for March 2023

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin


"Knowledge allows remembering, and remembering is honoring."

I'm not one to stick closely to the daily news cycle. That being said, it has been hard to watch politicians fight over banning books and censoring history, especially as they do nothing to stop school shootings like the one that occurred this week. With so much hate and deceit in the world, it can be hard to remain hopeful. Still, our optimism must remain. How do we keep this positive outlook? I don't pretend to have the answers, but I do see plenty of things that help me maintain an enthusiastic mindset.  In the book world, more and more diverse authors are telling their stories, introducing readers to a wider array of realities. Even more promising, it seems like these tales are capturing a broader audience than ever before. Add Cecile Pin's debut novel Wandering Souls into that category. She's written a searing portrait of a family's history through war, immigration, and assimilation. It is the kind of story that demands to be read. One that is powerful and poignant in its perspective. 

In the years following the Vietnam War, it is clear to Anh's parents that the promises of a bright future rest outside of their home country. Anh's uncle has taken his family to live the American dream, a dream that Anh's father plans to pursue too. This is a huge, life-changing moment for the family. Anh's parents know that the journey to a better life will be as perilous as it will be rewarding. They send Anh and the other eldest children on the trip to Hong Kong first. They promise that they and the younger siblings will not be far behind. The full family will be reunited in China before embarking on the next leg of their trip. This promise, though, will not be kept. Anh's parents and younger siblings are killed during their travels, leaving the fragmented remains of the family left to journey ahead alone. 

Over the next several decades, Anh and her surviving siblings are left to pick up the pieces of their father's shattered dream. They land first in a resettlement camp, a place where they interact with other immigrants, struggling to hold on to their identities. When they finally are placed back into the real world they land not in America, but in the UK. Their new home doesn't offer the bright future they were promised. Instead, the siblings face anti-immigrant hate and systemic social inequality. Instead of coming together, to form their new life, each sibling slowly diverges from the other. Racked with survivor's guilt and a desire to pave their own path, they'll have to reckon with the ghosts of their past to find their way to a brighter future. 

I can't give enough praise to this book. I was entranced by the story told in Wandering Souls, and I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with a copy of it. Cecile Pin has written a novel that deals with the challenges of memory. How do we keep the memory of loved ones alive? How do we honor our past while moving toward the future? These are the things Pin grapples with. The characters in the book give us an insight into the realities of being an immigrant to a foreign country. Pin intersperses the third-person narrative of her main character Anh with the first-person voice of Anh's deceased younger brother. This ghostly voice ties everything that happens in Anh's life to her past, never fully allowing her to escape it. Also included in the narrative are snippets of factual articles from the time, grounding this fiction in the reality of the world it depicts. These elements come together to tell a visceral story of family, love, and loss. Wandering Souls is the best, most important book that I've read this month, and will no doubt be among my favorite reads of the year. 

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

(2023, 18)

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James


Does the time of year influence the books that you read? I've always been a mood reader, motivated to read whichever title strikes my fancy at any given moment. That said, my reading preferences also shift with the seasons. Summertime is filled with fast-paced thrillers, while I gravitate toward literary fiction and non-fiction in the fall. I try to fill October with spooky-themed reads, and I can't resist a holiday-themed book in December. I guess it is safe to say that I'm a mix between both mood and seasonal. This week I was in the mood for something with a twinge of horror in it. Simone St. James's The Book of Cold Cases seemed like the perfect candidate. Her previous two books The Broken Girls and The Sun Down Motel both managed to thrill and frighten me, so I had high hopes for her latest effort. 

In 1977 the quiet town of Claire Lake, Oregon was rocked by a horrific killing spree. The Lady Killer Murders, as the two homicides became known, were unique in that the witnesses of the crimes stated that they were committed by a mysterious woman. In both cases, a long-haired individual dressed in a trenchcoat stepped forward and shot the victims at point-blank range. The list of potential suspects in the small town was short. Beth Greer, the twenty-three-year-old heiress to a family fortune, fit the bill as the most likely perpetrator of the crimes. She went to a lengthy trial that saw her acquitted of all charges. The court of public opinion, however, never forgave her for her alleged misdeeds. 

Flash forward to 2017. Shea Collins toils away at her day job as a receptionist at a clinic. She never thought this would be the life she lived, but it pays the bills. It is after hours when Shea truly has the time to follow her passion. She runs the true crime website, The Book of Cold Cases. Her zealous obsession with true crime stems from her own childhood trauma, a past that saw her escape from the hands of an abductor. These days, she works tirelessly to shed a light on those cases that time has long forgotten. Chance puts her in the presence of Beth Greer, the only suspect in one of the most notorious cold cases in the area. Beth has notoriously stayed quiet about that time but surprisingly agrees to Shea's request for an interview. As Shea begins to dive into Beth's past, she can't help but feel a sense of unease. Could Beth truly be the murderer that got away, or is something more sinister at play?

As with her previous books, Simone St. James imbues every page of The Book of Cold Cases with a sense of dread and unease. The book alternates between past and present, slowly revealing the truth behind the murders being investigated. St. James's ability to place the reader into the world she conjures remains unparalleled. The gothic atmosphere in this book is palpable. I was instantly drawn to the idea of a true-crime investigator digging into a cold case and found that the book worked best when focusing on the investigation. Supernatural and haunted elements have become a kind of signature for St. James, though I found them to be more unnecessary to this story than I have when reading her other books. The characters and their story were tense enough to hold my attention, and the overtly supernatural occurrences were more of a distraction than anything else. That being said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy reading this one. I'm a sucker for a mystery, and The Book of Cold Cases more than satisfied my hunger for a head-scratcher. I only wish the ghost story was as intriguing. 

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

(2023, 17)

He Said He Would Be Late by Justine Sullivan


Relationships are built upon trust. Think about it for a moment. You love and respect the person you've chosen to spend your life with, but there's no way for either of you to know every aspect of their life that hasn't included you. Undoubtedly, there were moments before you entered each other's lives that you simply don't know about. Even the longest relationships between couples who "share everything" are bound to have at least some kind of discrepancy or blind spot.  It is the trust that you've established between yourselves that allows you to not have to worry about those unknowns. If trust between a couple can be built, it stands to reason that it can also be broken. In her debut novel He Said He Would Be Late, author Justine Sullivan tells the story of a couple about to face the ultimate test of trust in their relationship. 

From the outside looking in, Liz Bennet has a perfect life. She's a published author with a deal for a second book secured. She's the mother to the precocious toddler Emma. Liz's husband Arno is everything she ever dreamed of. He's handsome, wealthy, and the perfect father to their daughter. To top things off, his last name is Bennet, giving Liz the same name as the protagonist from her favorite novel Pride and Prejudice. That has to be some kind of cosmic sign that her relationship is meant to be. Yes, there is no denying that Liz's life is about as perfect as she could dream of. Why then, does it feel as if her life isn't everything it is cracked up to be?

The cracks in Liz's life begin to appear soon after the birth of her daughter. Instead of the bliss and sense of duty that comes with being a mother, Liz can only think of the way this child is negatively impacting her life. Other mothers speak of the way giving birth flipped a switch that turned on motherly instinct. Liz loves her daughter, but that ethereal motherly inclination hasn't come to her. On top of this, spending every waking hour caring for Emma has kept her from writing her second novel. There's just no time to devote to her ever-approaching deadline. Finally, there's her relationship with Arno. He's a great father when he's home, but Liz is noticing him spending longer and longer days at the office. It seems as if he's always running late. Then she stumbles across a text from a female coworker on his phone. At first glance, it seems like an innocent enough message thanking Arno. But there's a kissy face emoji at the end. This simple text begins to sow seeds of doubt in Liz's mind. She'll stop at nothing to find out the truth. 

He Said He Would Be Late marks the debut of author Justine Sullivan. She's written about the perils of paranoia in the form of suspenseful domestic fiction. The novel is told entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, giving the reader deep insight into the character and what motivates her. This isn't a thriller in the traditional sense. Instead, Sullivan uses the anxiety of her character to lace each page with a sense of uncertainty. As I read, I became intensely invested in the plight of this character. I wasn't certain that I could trust her instincts around her husband's infidelity, but I equally could not look away as she followed every breadcrumb of potential evidence. This is a tightly plotted read that will have you breathlessly turning the pages. The open-ended ending may frustrate a few readers, but I found that it perfectly capped off this story. I'm thankful to Sullivan's publisher for sharing a copy of the book with me, and I can't wait to read whatever she comes up with next. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 16)

Finding Freedom by Erin French


You probably have yet to hear of Erin French. The odds of you having ever dined at her exclusive restaurant The Lost Kitchen are slim. The 40-seat eatery has been lauded with awards and recognition, becoming one of the world's most coveted places to eat. Diners are selected by submitting handwritten postcards to the local post office. Only a lucky few are drawn to attend. French has become more well-known in recent years due to her appearance on her own show on Johanna Gaine's Magnolia Network. That's where I first learned of the chef and her restaurant. I was drawn by her connection to her hometown of Freedom, Maine, and her commitment to only using fresh/local ingredients from her community. I devoured the three seasons of her show, and have been eagerly waiting for more from her. When I learned that French had written a memoir, I rushed to my library to borrow a copy. 

The story of Erin's life is centered on her hometown of Freedom, Maine. Freedom is the place she grew up. It is where her father owned a diner and the place she honed her skills in the kitchen. Freedom is also the place she couldn't wait to get away from. As soon as she was able to, she ran away to college, hoping to leave her small town behind for good. An unplanned pregnancy halted her dreams and forced Erin to move back home. It was here that she began hosting small dinners, part of a traveling supper club that she used to support herself and her small child. It was here where she first fell in love, both with the idea of cooking for people and with her first husband. As she chronicles the events of her life, it is clear that Erin would not be where she is today without the never-ending heartbeat of her hometown.  

In Finding Freedom chef Erin French highlights her journey to becoming a food superstar. She writes honestly about her struggles. French faced abusive relationships that nearly sidelined her dreams of being a chef. She doesn't hold back in writing about how she lived through those terrible moments in life, hitting a low when she checked herself into a rehab facility and completely lost her business and custody of her son. Despite these trials, French stayed true to who she was and persevered. Ironically, she ultimately found her own freedom in her aptly-named hometown. As a fan of her and her show, I really enjoyed learning about how the events in her life brought her to where she is now. Her past is rarely mentioned in the show, so it was fascinating to learn of her beginnings. Even if this review is the first time you've heard of Erin French, I think there is a universal relatability in her story that will appeal to all readers. 

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

(2023, 15)

What Have We Done by Alex Finlay


Who is an author that you've heard of but never read? In addition to reading many books each year, I spend a fair amount of time reading other readers' reviews. After all, how will I find my next great read if I don't check out what others are reading? Alex Finlay is an author whose work has come to my attention in recent years. Despite hearing great things about his standalone thrillers, I've never made it a point to read them for myself. When his publisher invited me to read his latest book What Have We Done, I jumped at the chance to see what this author is all about. 

It happened nearly twenty-five years ago. They were all residents at a home for troubled teens. They thought that the past was behind them, but then one of them, a judge, was murdered. Another of the group, a troubled reality show producer narrowly escaped a similar fate. The remaining, a newly married stepmother and an aging rock star know that they must be next on the list. The three former friends will have to come together to escape the sins of their past. 

To attempt to fully summarize the plot of What Have We Done would deny potential readers the thrill of this narrative unwrapping. With each new chapter, Alex Finlay meticulously peels back the layers of his mystery. He employs shifting perspectives and time jumps to lay the breadcrumbs to his twisty conclusion. As I read, I could easily see why so many readers enjoyed this author's work. He writes with a quick pace, never letting the tension cease. The deeper into the web of this mystery I fell, however,  the more over the top I found it to become. This is sheer pulpy action fun, the kind that I rolled my eyes at a few times, but I couldn't stop reading. The characters serve the plot fine but don't expect any deeper revelations into their emotions. They are here to drive the story, and they do that well. I'm left with mixed feelings about my first outing with Finlay. On the one hand, I couldn't stop reading. On the other, the action got a bit too unbelievable for my tastes. If you're the kind of reader who has trouble looking past outrageous plot points, this one may not be the book for you. If you are able, though, to suspend disbelief, you'll really enjoy the ride this book takes you on. 

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

(2023, 14)

Mothered by Zoje Stage


Like many of us during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, author Zoje Stage found herself isolated at home, waiting for the world to reopen. Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months. It quickly became apparent that COVID was here to stay. Like other authors, the pandemic heavily influenced Stage, inspiring her to write her latest novel Mothered. In an unfortunate act of serendipity, I found myself isolated at home after a positive COVID test earlier this week. I've suffered through the last couple of days with a sore throat and no voice at all, but I'm thankful that my symptoms haven't worsened. With all this time at home, I managed to read Stage's new book. It has added another layer to this already fascinating novel. 

The early days of the pandemic impacted different people in different ways. Yes, there was uncertainty about the situation. What was this strange disease? Were we all in danger of getting it? Beyond the mechanics of the illness, though, arose real questions about how it would impact people's livelihoods. Grace is one such person facing these uncertainties. As a hairdresser, she relies on being in close contact with other people to make a living. You can't cut someone's hair when you are supposed to be social distancing. The owner of the salon where Grace works has decided to use the temporary shutdown as an opportunity to liquidate the business and take early retirement. This, of course, leaves Grace out in the cold. 

With her job prospects on ice, Grace is desperate to find any means of income possible. Right before the pandemic began, she purchased her first home. At the time, she was excited to have made this huge life step, but now she's saddled with a mortgage that she's unsure she'll be able to pay. With no other choices, Grace turns to the one person she never thought she would ask for help. She asks her recently widowed mother Jackie to move in. 

There's a history between mother and daughter that caused a rift in their relationship. Grace optimistically looks at their cohabitation as an opportunity to mend that gap. Soon, however, good intentions turn bad, and their troubled past resurfaces. Grace begins to have nightmares that eerily blend reality and fiction. She dreams of her deceased sister, who despite her own physical challenges always found a way to be cruel to Grace. Things worsen from there, forcing Grace to grapple with the one person she has never been able to fully understand. . . her mother.

This was my first experience reading Zoje Stage's work. I was especially eager to accept this publisher-provided copy of Mothered based on how many of my book reading buddies adored her debut novel Baby Teeth. I found her writing to be compulsively readable. Much of the narrative momentum of the novel is driven by the characters, both of whom are fully fleshed-out versions of people grappling with different aspects of the pandemic. Stage daringly allows her characters to venture into their own paranoia, urging the readers to peek around the corner with them, veering closer and closer to the gruesome and taboo. There is no shortage of disturbing violence, especially as the novel crescendos to its climax. Stage balances this by grounding her characters in a reality that we all recently lived through. Mothered is a unique domestic thriller grounded by strong characters. It is the most inventive and captivating thriller I've read so far this year. 

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

(2023, 13)

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