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Book Review: Safe Houses – Page-turning Thriller!


Safe Houses

By Dan Fesperman

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Berlin 1979:  a city full of spies and counterspies. Espionage was dangerous and involved many ordinary people. Helen was one of them. Even though her job was not one of the highest risk, she knew secrets that could come back to haunt her at any time. Today she would be called a feminist, but in 1979 she was removed from her assignment and dismissed from the agency. She thought being sent back to the states was the worst thing that could happen to her, but she was wrong.

August 2014: fast forward to a tiny town in rural Maryland. Willard Shoat shoots and kills his parents as they slept causing uproar in the close knit community. Willard is slow by any man’s definition, but he has never been violent or mean. Sadly, he doesn’t even realize his mother and father are dead or why he is sitting in a jail cell. Anna, his sister, arrives in town to bury her parents and tend to her brother, but is perplexed as to how someone that just wants her to bring his Star War toy to prison could kill their parents in cold blood. She fears he will be lost in the prison system and calls upon a stranger in town to help her find answers.

Anna enlists the new guy in town, Henry Mattick, to help her find out the truth. It is rumored he is a PI, which may or may not be exactly true. That being said, he is already on an undercover job and doesn’t really want to become involved with a local fiasco. But something about Anna makes him more than curious about her family. They become an unlikely duo fighting for a small guy in a huge mess. Secrets from the past are revealed, shedding light upon some very dangerous characters that operate outside of the law with the protection of the government. Mr. and Mrs. Shoat may not be the only casualties by the time this fast-paced novel ends.

Safe Houses is a heart pounding, breath holding thriller wrapped in intrigue and intelligence. Fesperman’s masterfully blends two stories together to make a powerful book that kept me turning pages late into the night. This is the first book by Dan Fesperman I have read, I don’t know how he was not on my radar because Safe House is his eleventh novel. I am putting the other ten on my Christmas list.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: Murder on Union Square – A Gaslight Mystery

Murder on Union Square

By Victoria Thompson

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Frank Malloy and his wife Sarah are looking for a killer in the latest Gaslight Mystery by award winning author Victoria Thompson. When Malloy is found with bloody hands over the body of a dead man, the local police figure they have an open and shut case. Malloy, former cop turned PI is not a favorite of the precinct which just adds more fuel to the fire. And if that isn’t enough to get him in hot water, the dead man needed to sign custody papers so that Sarah and Malloy could adopt the victim’s daughter, which according to the police, gives Malloy the perfect motive.

Sarah quickly bails Malloy out and rounds up Gino (Malloy’s partner) and Maeve (Sarah’s right-hand gal) to start investigating the murder to clear her husband’s name. The problem is there is an unreliable witness that claims Malloy is the killer. It doesn’t help that it happened in a theater full of actors, all of which seemed to have an ax to grind with the victim and his girlfriend. Everyone seems to be lying or hiding something from each other and the investigators, who must pull out all stops to find the truth, clear Malloy’s name and put the real killer behind bars.

This is the twenty-first book in Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series. It is the first one that I have read, and it works as a stand-alone novel. There were a few times I was fuzzy on who a specific character was for a page or two but Thompson skillfully gave enough information to put them in context before the end of the chapter. It is no surprise that she is a #1 Best Selling New York Times author as well as Edgar and Agatha nominee.

Murder on Union Square is tantalizingly engaging. I love the depth of characters as well as the twists and turns of the storyline. There is something cozy and comforting about historical novels that draw me in immediately. While I am thankful for cell phones and modern forensics, it is refreshing to have mysteries that are solved with shoe leather and wit.

Somehow I’ve missed out on Thompson’s series before now, but cannot wait to put the other twenty on my wish list. Anyone who is a fan of captivating historical mysteries and realistic characters should do that same.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: Undead Girl Gang – Much More than Undead Teen Angst

Undead Girl Gang

By Lily Anderson

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Sixteen year old Camila Flores (Mila) and her best friend Riley are excluded by most of the social groups at school. They are the kids that no one really gets to know, or hang out with, so the girls make a conscious choice to be different. Really different. The snarl instead of smile, mumble instead of talk and the decision to become Wiccan sets them apart from the other kids even more. Wicca is a religion that scares the bejesus out of the people surrounding the girls. They all assume that the girls believe they are witches and run around casting spells on everyone. No matter if the spells work, or if Mila and Riley are even really casting spells, the other kids keep their distance.

When Riley is found dead, Mila is beside herself. How can she cope with any friends? High school is bad enough with an ally, but being on her own makes school and life almost unbearable. And to make matters worse, she thinks that Riley’s death is murder not an accident or suicide.  When two more classmates take their own lives without any logical explanation, Mila is more than determined to find out what happened. Deciding to bring her BFF back from the dead was the only viable solution to finding out who killed her and the other two girls.

Unfortunately for Mila, the spell actually works, and Riley isn’t the only undead girl Mila has to deal with. The other two dead teens are also undead and complaining about it. Drama queens in life make for snarky undead girls. The three of them can’t remember much to tell Mila, but as the days go on, they start to remember what happened before their deaths. This could put the very much alive Mila in danger of joining her dead classmates. The spell only lasts for seven days, so they only have one week to find enough evidence to stop the killer before it is too late.

Undead Girl Gang is smart, funny, sad, emotional and engrossing. I literally read it in just under 48 hours (one has to stop for food and sleep at some point). Anderson has captured the grittiness of high school; magnified by learning the popular girls are no less tortured than the outcasts. The emotion and depth she adds to the characters brings it to a much higher level than merely teenage angst. The life or death outcome and growth of characters both dead and living will stay with the reader long after the last words are read.

This is the first of Anderson’s Teen/Young Adult books I have read. It is a stand-alone novel, following two others she has written:  Not Now, Not Ever and The Only Thing Worse than Me is You. Fans of YA will delight in finding this new author and fans of Lily Anderson are no doubt excited to see another fabulous read from a gifted YA author.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: Social Creature – Compelling Debut Thriller

Social Creature

By Tara Isabella Burton

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Penguin First to Read and Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Lavinia is rich, wild and daring. Louise is living life on the edge in other ways. She works three jobs just to make the rent on her dinky apartment. When this unlikely duo collide with each other, Louise begins to lose all sense of self as Lavinia becomes a drug and alcohol Auntie Mame, encouraging Louise to live more and more on the edge until she becomes a permanent accessory of her mentor.

Soon Louise is going to all the “in” places and seeing all the chic people. Selfies are a must as well as extravagant food, drink and over the top and sometimes illegal activities. The more involved she becomes, the less she is herself. Both figuratively and literally.

When the sand castle friendship seems to be dissolving, how far will Louise go to keep up the charade of existence Lavinia has created for her? Do we really know who Louise is?

Burton has written a fabulous book of deception and debauchery. Are these two girls Thelma and Louise, just on a joyride through life until the end goes tragically wrong? Are they both cold and calculating – or is one of them manipulating the other to keep from living a lonely existence? The twists, turns and emotions of this novel make it a true page turner.

Like Louise it is fun to step into a world that most of us just read about on the internet or in tabloids. Most of us would not like to participate, but what if we had someone encouraging and paying for all of the craziness? Maybe we would give it a try. What if we got in too deep? My suggestion is to live this craziness through the pages of Burton’s engrossing novel.

Tara Isabella Burton brings her debut novel to life skillfully. With understated realities, the plot can take the reader places he will hopefully never go in real life. Her writing style creates a reality that is so alluring, we are drawn into the characters and story from the first page and held there until the last word is read.

I hope to hear much more from this author. Social Creature is a gem.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: A Sister in My House – Contemplative Women’s Fiction

A Sister in My House

By Linda Olsson

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and honest review.

A Sister in My House on the surface is the story of three sisters. But layer after layer it is actually a study of women’s emotions toward each other and those they encounter. One lost by death, the other two making their way through life in the wake of this event. Separated in age and experiences, the remaining two sisters have grown further apart in their adult years. Surprisingly, Maria invited Emma to come and stay for a visit while the two of them were together for their mother’s funeral.

Two years later Emma calls to take Maria up on the invitation that both of them know was not sincere or necessarily well intended. The resulting week of togetherness forces the sisters to acknowledge their past and think more clearly about their future. Maria has wrapped herself so tightly in her grief and losses that she cannot allow herself to enjoy life. Emma’s husband and children are no longer available for her as they once were. Resigning herself to the fact that those she loves will leave her, just as her beloved sister did early in her life, Emma risks falling into depression as she has done before.

A week is not a long time. Will it be long enough to make headway on the road to discovery for both of them?

Olsson’s literary fiction is powerful in words but not actions. It is the type of book you read, and then think about for a long time after. Small steps in the sister’s lives become giant leaps in their growth. One of my favorite quotes is: “Life intrudes from different directions. And I am no longer resisting I think.”  To me, this shows the growth of the characters and the fact that they still have more healing to complete. Like real life, things cannot be resolved quickly, but any progress is a step in the right direction.

This is the first book I have read by Linda Olsson. This prolific, award-winning author should be on your watch list for literary fiction.

Copyright © 2018 Laura Hartman

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Book Review: To Be Where You Are – The Latest Book in the Mitford Series

To Be Where You Are

By Jan Karon

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Netgalley and Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Mitford is a small town tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The locals know everyone and everything that goes on in the town. Information spreads faster than the cool mountain breeze of autumn when something good or bad happens to any of the inhabitants.

Like any small town, there are interesting stories of citizens that have been there for generations. They are kind to the new residents, whom they welcome with open arms. Karon shares many of them with her readers.

To Be Where You Are chronicles the lives of several of the families and individuals living in Mitford. One of them is an adorable little girl named Grace Murphy. She is writing and illustrating a book. Not an easy thing for a little girl who is six, but almost seven.

The local vet, Dooley Kavanagh and his wife Lace are up to their eyeballs in happiness and troubles. Like most young couples they are devoted to each other and have less money and time to relax than older couples often do. But they are happy, especially now that they are parents. Lace cannot have children of her own, but they are adopting a four year old boy who needs parents more than anything. Jack will be the son they have prayed for and Dooley and Lace are happier than they ever imagined with him in their lives.

There is a grumpy old man, Avis, who owns the local store. He is gruff on the outside but does everything that he can to help the local farmers. He does this quietly and gracefully, most people not knowing of his good deeds.

Karon writes spiritual books, To Be Where You Are does not deviate from the writing path she has chosen. She also writes books about real people, in real situations that most of us can identify with. That is one of the charming aspects of this series. There are no less than three priests in this book. One is retired, one is currently serving the parish and one has just felt the calling from God to become a man of the cloth. My favorite was the retired one, he seemed to do more work than the other two combined. His on the spot marriage counseling was spot on.

There is more than a smattering of animals that play a big part in the cast of characters. How can you not love a huge bull named Choo Choo? Several dogs and a few cats were additional bright spots I enjoyed.

This was an interesting book. It jumps from character to character, so the first few chapters were a bit confusing for me. Just as I was getting to know a character and situation, they would not show up for several chapters. The names were difficult to remember because the character list is so long. While by the end I had them figured out, the middle was muddled because I had to go back to see who was who.

I loved the ending. It wrapped up all of the story lines with satisfying endings. I anticipated the big surprise (which I will not reveal here – you will have to read the book!) it was not unexpected, but made me happy nonetheless.

I recommend this book to anyone that likes spiritual fiction as well as books that have a large cast of characters. It is heartwarming and charming.

Karon is a best-selling author of many books, including the Mitford Series. This is the fourteenth book in series, highlighting the third generation of Kavanaghs. It is the first one I have read, but I didn’t feel as there were any backstories that I didn’t know. It worked well as a standalone book.

 

Copyright © 2017 Laura Hartman

 

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Book Reviews: All These Perfect Strangers – Truth or Lies? You decide!

all these perfect strangersPenelope (Pen) Sheppard is a lot of things. Honest is not one of them and most importantly I am not sure she is even honest with herself. She shares little bits of herself to the psychiatrist the courts have ordered her to see. Pen shares other bits of herself to her family and smaller bits to her college “friends”. Last of all she parcels out the bits she wants the reader to know in very small increments – often leaving out vital details that we find out in the last few pages.

These bits are what keep the readers interested in the story. She appears to be the victim, falsely accused of crimes she did not commit. But she has personal knowledge of them. Is she making up stories to give the psychiatrist what he wants to hear? Is this personal knowledge or her version of reality? There are tons of questions throughout the book as the reader sees Pen in her current day world and the one that came crashing down a few months previously, after several murders.

The small town Pen grew up in was not as forgiving as the authorities, so when she came back after the trouble at college, most of them didn’t want anything to do with her. She had to come back to see Frank, because her lawyer has arranged for the psychiatrist she worked with in the past to help her work through the terrible injustice that was inflicted on her. The lawyer is requiring a report to “demonstrate her pain and suffering” to support her case against the university. The three years since she has been in Frank’s office have been a short while for him, but a lifetime for Pen.

The rest of the story unfolds as he asks her to bring weekly journal entries to him, telling her side of the events that led her to his door again. Pen is reluctant, but knows it is her only chance of moving on, so she opens her heart up on the pages and her side of the story is finally pouring out of her. But will she actually share all of this with Frank or anyone else?

The truth and lies tangle to tell a story with twists, turns and surprises. If the reader pays attention, Pen tells you that she isn’t exactly telling the whole truth all of the time. Those bits and pieces of truth can lead to assumptions that may or may not be true. You won’t find out until the end. Then you will have the “ah ha!” moment what all great mysteries need to satisfy their readers.

Clifford’s characters are gritty and real. I didn’t always like Pen – but I don’t think I had to in order to enjoy the novel. As a matter of fact, I think not liking her gave me a better perspective of her character.

All These Perfect Strangers is Clifford’s first novel, but she is the author of several award winning short stores.

Copyright © 2016 Laura Hartman

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy for free from Random House ChatterBox Monthly Mystery that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was not expected to return this item after my review.

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