Review: “The New Neighbors,” Simon Lelic

Pros: Interesting mystery
Cons: Structurally odd
Rating: 4 out of 5

Simon Lelic’s The New Neighbors largely takes the form of a manuscript written alternately by Sydney and Jack, a couple who recently bought an old house stuffed with creepy junk. After a neighbor dies they want to get their experiences down on paper (or at least Jack thinks it’ll help) so that the reader can best understand the strange incidents that have befallen them. Is it a ghost story? Is it a murder mystery? You’ll have to read to find out.

The back-and-forth between Jack and Syd rings true. In some ways it makes the situation between them worse as they get some of their harshest and hardest feelings down on paper between them. They’re having to hash things out in a tone neither has dealt with before. And as the narrative involves events that can be hard to prove at best, particularly once the police get involved, believing in each other has never been so tricky.

The families involved in this tale–Jack’s and Syd’s, as well as neighbor Elsie’s–are outrageously nasty, but also believably so. (If you’ve dealt with manipulative and abusive people in real life you’ll probably find some of the family members’ behaviors disturbingly familiar; consider this your warning if you aren’t up to reading about abuse.) Things spiral downward for the couple (Jack loses his job; Syd returns to drug use) and for Elsie as well, whose father puts her in the hospital. It’s depressingly hard to read about if you aren’t ready for it, but it rings true.

The structure was a bit odd. Sometimes one of the two people will have more than one section in a row, so you really have to pay attention to which name begins a chapter and not just rely on alternating chapters. The two character voices need a little more differentiation in my opinion. There’s also some confusion once we jump into and through the present events and thus the whole thing isn’t really being told the same way any more. The good part is that there’s a really nice wind-up like you want in a traditional mystery toward the end. There are plenty of hints and clues and ways for you to figure things out (or not) depending on what you pick up on.

Ultimately I enjoyed this novel and would try more by Peter Lelic.

NOTE: Free book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “The Beloveds,” Maureen Lindley

Pros: Weird, shifting tale
Cons: Weird, shifting tale
Rating: 4 out of 5

Maureen Lindley’s The Beloveds focuses on Elizabeth, who feels mightily aggrieved. As far as she’s concerned her life has always gone wrong. Her younger sister Gloria appropriated both her date Henry (eventually marrying him!) and her bff Alice. Their mother left the family home to Gloria even though Elizabeth is the one who loves the place. She has wars with her neighbors, starts experimenting with poisons, and engages in frankly psychopathic behavior. It’s interesting how many books lately are concentrating on the psychos instead of their victims. It’s an odd change, and one I would have preferred to remain a rare niche rather than become a trend. I prefer main characters who are at least a little sympathetic, and it’s hard to find that in characters like Elizabeth. Lindley tries to make her understandable in some small ways, but for me it wasn’t enough.

There were too many spots where I’d try to imagine what’s coming next in the story and all I’d come up with was “Elizabeth will find yet another way to be a psycho.” It would have been nice to see a bit more coherent plotting than that. That said, without giving anything away I will say I liked the way the tale ended. I thought it was clever and interesting and hinted at more interesting things to come than most of the rest of the story did before it. Okay, so that last bit is also a bit of a minus. It seems like some of the same things that make the book good are also the things that make it not sit entirely well with me.

Still, I do love tales where someone’s devious nature results in plenty of thrilling twists and turns, so I did enjoy reading The Beloveds. Whether you’re likely to enjoy it depends on how sympathetic you want your main character to be.

NOTE: Book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “The Broken Girls,” Simone St. James

Pros: Fascinating story
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

In Simone St. James’s The Broken Girls, the time period switches back and forth between 1950 and 2014, in the small town of Barrons, Vermont. In 1950 we follow four girls who attend the Idlewild boarding school, a place where families dump their unwanted or troubled girls. In 2014 our guide is Fiona, a journalist whose sister was killed and dumped on the abandoned grounds of the closed-down school 20 years ago, and who now finds herself writing a story about the planned renovation of the school. Just to make things even creepier, there’s a rumored ghost, Mary Hand, who haunts the school’s grounds in both time periods. Meanwhile, Fiona’s long-time obsession with her sister’s death–despite the fact that the man responsible is in prison–is driving a wedge between her and her boyfriend, Jamie. After all, it isn’t just that he’s a local cop. His father is the chief of police, and was a part of the investigation. As for Jamie’s family, of course they aren’t thrilled that he’s dating a reporter.

There’s a lot going on here. Fiona’s father, Malcolm, is a famous investigative journalist while Fiona mostly does fluff pieces. One of the girls from 1950 is an orphaned French girl who spent time in a concentration camp and who disappeared (only her friends thought anything serious happened to her–everyone else assumed she ran away). We end up with two mysteries: who killed Sonia in 1950, and was Fiona’s sister Deb really killed by her boyfriend Tim 20 years ago? Just to add to it, what role have the occupants of the town and the members of the police force played in all of this?

I found the mysteries to be fascinating and satisfying. There are subtle clues along the way, and I’m not ashamed to say I missed some of them–that’s indicative of a well-crafted narrative, in my opinion. There should be enough information to make you feel like you’re getting somewhere while keeping the ultimate clues subtle enough to keep you from feeling bored. It’s a tough line to tread.

The story did a good job with the ghost of Mary Hand. There’s definitely something inexplicable going on here, but it isn’t too heavy-handed and neither is it taken too lightly. Ultimately it does seem that there’s a ghost wandering the halls and grounds of Idlewild, but she isn’t overly powerful and doesn’t ride roughshod over the rest of the narrative. She adds the right level of creepiness.

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Review: “Live Your Life,” Ann LeFevre

Pros: Some good suggestions
Cons: Artificial gimmick; some not-so-great advice
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Live Your Life: 14 Days to the Best You by Ann LeFevre, PhD, LCSW, CMT, details 14 ways to improve your life and self. The “14 days” shtick feels like an artificial gimmick, because few of these suggestions are things where you’re going to see results in a day. The book tacitly acknowledges that when it conveys such sentiments as:

Show yourself compassion by listening to your cues and establishing a daily ritual that addresses your needs.

In one portion about exercise, LeFevre mentions being in pain all day every day for two to three weeks and just pushing through it until she felt better. While she stops short of saying we should do this ourselves, I think it’s irresponsible to send the message she does. When I developed tendinitis in my hands I, too, pushed through the pain–and as a result, it’ll never go entirely away. It’s important when in that much pain to at least get a doctor’s opinion if possible. Sure, some pain is temporary, but on the whole pain is a warning sign.

The book relies to some extent on visualization and self-affirmation techniques. These are techniques I’ve never been impressed by and haven’t heard great things about.

There are some good suggestions in here; nothing ground-breaking, but it’s still useful to have them all in one place. Again the whole “14 days” notion doesn’t really hold up when the author does things like put “Stay the Course” ahead of “Start Somewhere, Anywhere,” but they are both useful notions to think about. Each section includes “Thinking Points” and “Action Items” that nicely sum up the text and make it easy to come back and brush up on any things you want to try.

Ultimately, I feel like this is a late entry into the world of self-help that’s trying to do something new and instead just retreading old ground.

NOTE: Book provided free by publisher for review.

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Review: “Sparrow Hill Road,” by Seanan McGuire

Pros: Fascinating worldbuilding and characters
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road is about Rose Marshall, a ghost who’s been sweet 16 for decades. She’ll forever wear the prom dress she died in, and she does whatever she can to help those drivers who are headed toward a grim fate on the Ghost Roads. Sometimes she saves them. Sometimes she helps them get home one last time. Sometimes she saves their souls from an evil not-quite-phantom who fuels his immortality and youth using the ghosts of the newly dead–he’s the one who killed her, and she still runs from him, even though she knows eventually she’ll have to do something about him, if only because no one else will.

The description I read of this book made it sound like a novel concentrating on the latter plot line, but it’s actually more of an anthology of interconnected stories about Rose and the Ghost Roads. An intricate level of worldbuilding has gone into this milieu. Ghosts of all different kinds, following different sets of rules, abound. Routewitches pop up quite a few times, and on the whole they seem inclined to help Rose achieve her goals, although not always in the manner which she’d prefer. It was hard to imagine how Rose’s setup would support a book this large, but we’re talking Seanan McGuire here, so I trusted. I was right to trust–the stories are fascinating and imaginative all the way through. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel: The Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

The characterization is beautiful. Rose is a complex character, not at all limited by her urban legend(s). (Naturally in the decades since she died she’s been the source of a handful of them, some more accurate than others.) We gradually learn more and more about her own death, until finally it’s time for her to tell us the whole story. We also see her square off against a ghost that doesn’t know it’s a ghost, fight to save someone who’s approaching their fate, and do an unpleasant favor for the Queen of the routewitches. She tags along with some ghost hunters on a whim, and discovers that some of her own family still has an interest in her. The stories are varied and interesting, as is the world in which they take place. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys ghost stories.

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Short Take: “Lullaby Road,” James Anderson

Pros: Fascinating little desert town
Cons: Ending loses its mooring a bit
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lullaby Road, by James Anderson, centers around truck driver and somewhat-thug Ben. He becomes babysitter for a day when someone leaves a child and dog out in the cold for him, and a friend of his drops her baby on him with little notice. It isn’t a comedy, though, as this desperate little desert town goes a bit mad. Someone hits a street preacher with their car and takes off again–but things aren’t as simple as they seem. The (father?) of the child Ben is forced to take in, Pedro, disappears–how and why? Another man who employs Pedro turns up dead. Someone tries to finish off the preacher–who and why?

Poor Ben. He’s a simple guy who wants a simple life, but he’s just a slice too good to turn away when others need his help, and it gets him into all sorts of trouble. He’s already had a variety of run-ins with local police, who largely think of him as a thug (it’s true he tends to solve problems with his fists), so he’s starting with a handicap. Luckily he has friends, some of whom are willing to do things like help look after mysterious children.

Unfortunately, the ending goes a bit off-track. It’s interesting, but somewhat mysterious and vague, whereas the rest of the book tended to be grounded in physical detail and a very down-to-earth character. Maybe if the change had been more gradual, or there had been more surrealism in the rest of the book, it would have felt natural. Instead it felt like I drifted into a different book when I wasn’t looking.

 

Book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “The 53rd Card,” Virginia Weiss

Pros: Unusual and fascinating
Cons: A bit… odd
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In The 53rd Card: A Dark Tale about Finding Light, by Virginia Weiss, Emma accidentally summons the Devil to her home. She doesn’t make a bargain with him, but she does end up allowing him to take a precious keepsake–an exchange that gives her a taste of power and that opens a permanent doorway between her and the supernatural. The Devil didn’t have to show up himself in answer to her summons–in fact, normally he wouldn’t–meaning Emma has caught his interest. Not the best situation to be in, for sure!

Just so you know, there’s rape and attempted rape within these pages, so if that’s a topic you’d rather avoid, skip this book. Emma has lost each member of her family in turn. Her godfather tried to rape her. Her boyfriend Henry wants “space.” Her job has resulted in her being associated with some truly vile people, making her life difficult in a number of ways. In short, she’s had some very dark times. This makes the Devil’s deal unusually tempting, but she’s determined to do something good with it. Is that even possible, though?

Things get strange. Emma meets a street punk who seems to take an interest in her. The Devil wants… something. She finds a bookstore with grimoires and lectures on sex magic. She goes to a party in Hell. She meets the goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, and plays cards with deities. There’s little action and the tale is a bit didactic, with the pondering of unanswerable questions. It’s interesting, but I think you have to be in the right mood for it.

NOTE: Book provided free by publisher for review

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Review: “This Alien Shore,” C.S. Friedman

Pros: Stunning worldbuilding; amazing characters; wonderful plotting
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

In C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore young Jamisia Shido is forced to abandon the corporate habitat she’s lived in for some time as it is destroyed around her. Her tutor, who had been instructed to kill her in such a scenario, instead helps her to escape. But she’s hardly safe–she’s potentially the most valuable fugitive in the known universe. Her head is full of mysterious upgrades, and a handful of additional personalities to go with. Her real value, however, is as a potential means to break the Guild’s monopoly on space travel. When space travel was first implemented on a large scale, it warped those who traveled on a genetic level. When this was discovered, Earth isolated itself. The Guild was established by Variations (genetically warped humans) who discovered another (dangerous, but not on such a massive scale) way to travel through space, but because it depends on certain Variations, the Guild has a monopoly on such travel. It reestablished connections with Earth, but most of the Variations still hate Earth for abandoning them in their time of need. Earth would do anything to break the Guild’s monopoly on space travel, and Jamisia might be the key to that.

The worldbuilding here is amazing, and well ahead of its time. (It would be ahead of its time even now, and this book was published in 1998.) The Guerans are the Variation that includes “outpilots”. In fact, Guerans are made up of people who were warped mentally more than physically, and we’d consider them mentally ill or handicapped. Instead, the Guerans recognize that each type of personality has its benefits and drawbacks and role in society, and it’s considered part of their responsibility to respond appropriately to a person’s condition rather than expect a person to try to live up to some artificial standard of normalcy. The characters are fascinating and complex, and there’s a ton of politicking, paranoia, and scheming that goes on.

I love C.S. Friedman’s sci-fi even though this is only the third book of hers that I’ve read; I really need to pick up the pace!

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Review: “Dark in Death,” J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Good length; plenty going on; lots of detail; multiple murders
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Dark in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death), by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), is book 46 in the “in Death” series in which homicide detective Eve Dallas hunts down murderers in the near future. It’s a bit of a combo of murder mystery and soft sci-fi, with plenty of ongoing characters and a strong romance between Eve and her bazillionaire husband Roarke. If you’ve been thinking of joining the series and haven’t wanted to go back to the start (although it’s worth it!), this is probably not a bad choice of book to read. It doesn’t delve too much into some of the recent ongoing background plots, and I think it’s pretty good about how it introduces ongoing characters who show up.

In Dark in Death, Chanel Rylan is killed during the showing of classic movie Psycho, with a small ice pick to the back of the head. It happened just when her friend–a veterinarian–was called out of the theater for an emergency, so Eve knows the kill was carefully planned, but she can’t find any other evidence that the kill was personal. There’s just no evidence whatsoever of anyone having a grudge against Ms. Rylan. Then an author of murder mysteries shows up in Eve’s office–she believes someone is copying murders from one of her book series, and she isn’t just talking about Ms. Rylan. It’s stranger than it seems, however, as it seems that the killer may be more than just a copy-cat and might be inserting themselves into the scenes as other characters from the books. This is one of Eve’s smarter and crazier opponents.

I’ve enjoyed the last few “in Death” books, but this one is better. It’s a nice long story with a lot going on inside. There are multiple murders to hold our attention, a strange set of motives, a look into the business of authoring and dealing with fans, plenty of detail, and great characters. The only problem I had with it at all was that Eve seemed to make the jump to realizing the bad guy was “living in the scenes” and acting them out in character rather quickly and easily. Other than that, however, I thought the mystery unfolded well. Most of this one is spent trying desperately to figure out the identity of the bad guy, track them down, and prevent the rest of the series of books from being acted out. There are plenty of details and complications; it’s a creative tale with plenty to keep the reader glued to the pages!

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Review: “The Memory Detective,” T.S. Nichols

Pros: What a great concept, executed brilliantly
Cons: I wish there was already a sequel out!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

T.S. Nichols’s The Memory Detective is about police officer Cole, also known to the newspaper-reading public as the Memory Detective. A procedure has been developed that allows a person to take on the memories of a dead person. Usually this is done by a next of kin, but in a handful of cases Cole has done it for various Jane and John Does whose murders could not otherwise be solved. There’s a limit on how many of these procedures most people can undergo (two to three depending on the state), but there’s something unusual about Cole and he’s had more than ten without a problem. He’s also oddly good at recalling untainted memories of the murder itself, and he has a secret–when the case is over and he has some time to himself, he’s addicted to wallowing in the rest of the memories he’s taken on. Meanwhile, there’s another set of murders going on, perpetrated by a mysterious company that’s selling custom-made sets of memories. They hire desperate people and give them plenty of money to adventure on for ten years, with the understanding that at the end of that time, it’s over–the company comes for the memories once they find a buyer. All the cops know is that bodies with shaved heads keep turning up in the water, and Cole isn’t able to take on any memories from them.

The concept of the Memory Detective is fantastic and well-thought-out. This is also the only really obvious SF part of the plot, with the rest of the world seeming pretty much the same as always. Cole’s presence gives context to the procedure and prevents it from feeling like a gimmick or plot device. He truly humanizes the whole thing, particularly through his addiction and his quirky methods for trying to tease out the memories he needs. In addition, our exploration of the mysterious memory-selling company is through the experiences of one of their customers as he goes to great lengths to draw out every last one of the memories he’s inherited, again putting a human face on all of the machinations.

The only difficulty I had was with one particular scenario where Cole fails to figure out something that seemed rather obvious. But at least that situation doesn’t last for long. (Sorry for the vagueness; I’m trying not to give spoilers.)

The best compliment I can give this book is to say that I keep wishing there was already a sequel for me to read!

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