Thursday, January 11, 2018

Need to Know (Book Review)

Title: Need to Know
Author: Karen Cleveland
Publication: Ballantine, Hardcover, January 2018
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Vivian is a dedicated CIA analyst who has been working on an algorithm to identify Russian agents in sleeper cells in the US. Anticipating a breakthrough, her blood runs cold when she sees her husband’s name on the list of five names. In an instant, she sees terrible choices before her – to turn in Matt, the beloved father of her four children, or to betray her job and country? Even worse, what if neither choice will keep her or her family safe?

Audience: Fans of psychological suspense; authors such as David Baldacci, Jodi Picoult, Nora Roberts

My Impressions: I loved this fast paced debut thriller about a working mother every reader will find appealing. Vivian is dedicated to her job but finds it stressful, and worries she is shortchanging her children by working long hours. When she sees her husband’s name in an encrypted file, she can’t believe it, yet cannot dismiss it, and is worried about how to bring it up in conversation when she has scrupulously avoided talking about her job and recognizes that accusing your husband of being a Russian spy is - at the very least - a relationship-changer.
Vivian and Matt, their children, and a cast of supporting characters are vividly depicted, making this book impossible to put down. Told alternatively in the terrifying present and in flashbacks recounting how Vivian’s and Matt’s lives came together, this thriller begins with a heart-stopping dilemma and does not slow down until the final page. It is plausible, convincing, and terrifying. It was so nerve-wracking I wished it would end, then wished there had been another hundred pages! It will be great to see how this CIA analyst-turned author develops.

Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by NetGalley and the publisher for review purposes. This was one of my Best Books of 2017 and will be published this month.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Favorite Reads of 2017

2017 was full of outstanding books! I read about 166 books, of which 18 were audio books and 19 were ebooks (a higher percentage than usual due to more electronic review copies and because I did more reading at the gym using a Kindle). Here is a link to my Goodreads year in review which shows everything I read. All but three books were fiction, but two of those made the favorites list listed by genre below:
Historical Fiction
The Black Madonna and Lords of Misrule – The Black Madonna is the first novel in Stella Riley’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series, and Lords of Misrule is the fourth. I had to go back to reread The Black Madonna after reading Lords of Misrule (not because I had forgotten anything, I just missed the characters). Set in the 17th century during the English Civil War, the primary male character is a true anti-hero, a sharp-tongued goldsmith trying to redeem his family’s honor while dodging the partisans on both sides of the English Civil War, most of whom look down on him but seek to borrow money from him. He comes into contact with red-headed Kate Maxwell and her warmhearted family, but has no time for friendship or romance or anything that will distract him from vengeance. You’ll see how that works out! Lords of Misrule is the long awaited story of Kate’s brother Eden but please don’t read out of order!  Fans of Stella Riley will be delighted her books are all in print.

Secrets of a Charmed Life – Set in 1940s England, one of my favorite timeframes, the book is told as a flashback of heroine Emmy Downtree’s WWII experience and the dreams that kept her going through tragedy. This book was recommended to me while I was in the Cotswolds (where it is partially set) in June by Meissner’s former editor, and I put it on reserve that night so it would be waiting for me at the library when I got home.

Mrs. Mike – How could I never have read this classic novel by Benedict and Nancy Freedman, beloved by many, about a 16 year old Irish girl from Boston who falls for a Mountie while visiting her uncle in Calgary? Yes, it is dated and the depiction of Native Americans is distasteful but it was incredibly captivating and vivid, hard to put down, and alternatively made me laugh and cry. You think the Ingalls family was cold and isolated but that is nothing compared to the isolation and tragedy Kathy experiences and embraces because of her love for Mike. This was a free Kindle purchase which I read on the Cybex machine at the gym.

Suspense
Need to Know – A brilliant and impossible to put down novel by Karen Cleveland coming out in early 2018 about a CIA analyst who suddenly comes across a document indicating her husband is a Russian spy. Is it true? Can she risk her family and her job to find out? This was one of my favorite books of the year, in part because of the great job the author does of moving between the details of family life and the stress experienced by the heroine as she agonizes about what to do.  Here is a link to my longer review.

Magpie Murders – This is a book within a book, an homage to the era of Golden Age of mystery fiction. Susan is a book editor in London whose difficult but lucrative author Alan Conway dies unexpectedly with a chapter missing from the manuscript about to go to press. The book is set in an Agatha Christie-like 50s village with a detective who resembles Hercule Poirot, and when Susan visits the author’s home she finds that everyone she meets was depicted in some way in the manuscript, and not in a positive way. She realizes that the missing pages are a clue to Conway’s death but can she find them before the killer finds her?

The Sound of Broken Glass – Deborah Crombie is one of my favorite mystery writers to recommend, and I love her married sleuths, Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. In this as in many of her books, there are dual time frame mysteries that are connected, the death of a barrister at an unsavory London hotel and a neglected, vulnerable child years ago. I especially liked the focus on Gemma’s fellow detective Melody in this 15th installment in the series (I have slowed down my reading pace so I don’t outpace the author who just published the 17th).

Suspect – I had not previously read Robert Crais and his Elvis Cole books were a little too hard-boiled for me but I found this book about a Los Angeles cop who has lost his partner in a mysterious shoot out and recovers with the help of an also-damaged German shepherd who lost her handler to a bomb in Iraq to be very moving. Together – but not without difficulty - they can heal and solve the crime that will enable them to become valued members of the police department’s canine unit.

Fiction
The Handmaid’s Tale – As Margaret Atwood's new miniseries began getting acclaim, I realized I was one of the last people who had not read this iconic novel, and suggested my Book Group read it. I was not sure I would like it but once I got past the first chapter, it was hard to stop reading and the theme of misogyny in a patriarchal society was universally popular after Trump’s election (at least with those I know) so it was one of our liveliest discussions of the year – and judging by how hard it was to find a copy of the book at the library, everyone else in Greater Boston was reading or rereading at the same time. I was surprised to find it was set in a dystopian version of Cambridge and New England but Atwood did earn a Master’s Degree at Radcliffe.

Nonfiction
A Chelsea Concerto – Another book set during WWII but this, unusually, is a memoir, recently brought back into print by Dean Street Press and the Furrowed Middlebrow blog. It is a fascinating look at what daily life was like during the London Blitz for charming Frances Faviell, an artist living in Chelsea who manages to continue painting (more or less as the bombs fall) while working as a volunteer nurse at a hospital and keeping peace among the local refugees. It is full of fascinating anecdotes and characters, and I wished it were longer. I also read The Dancing Bear in improper order, bad me – a later memoir set in Germany after WWII, which was also good but much darker. Thank you to Dean Street Press for a number of amazing reprints in 2017! Please keep it up.

Forty Autumns, A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall – I loved this story of three generations of author Nina Willner’s family which I reviewed in more detail in August: her grandparents who stay on the “wrong” side of the wall after WWII and try to make a life for their large family and her mother who escapes and ends up in America, bringing up her own children but never giving up hope she will one day be reunited with her family. This was a book I really enjoyed sharing with friends, especially those of German ancestry.

YA
Far From the Tree – I had read and enjoyed other books by this author, and her work has increased in depth and complexity since the lighthearted Audrey, Wait! about a girl whose ex-boyfriend’s song about her hits the charts. This one is about Grace, a determined teen who gives up her child for adoption because she believes that will provide her child with a better life but is then inspired to seek her own birth mother. In the process, she learns she has two half-siblings and reaches out to them to establish a relationship. One of the many things I liked about this book is the horrible (but believable) way Grace, a smart, college bound 16-year-old, is slut-shamed by her ex-boyfriend’s friends while he avoids any responsibility at all and the high school looks the other way (of course, if this were set a generation or two ago, she would not have been able to return to school at all, or would have had to camouflage the pregnancy with a mysterious visit to distant relatives or boarding school). The only thing I didn’t like was the lack of explanation why she was ever involved with him in the first place and chose to have sex with such a cipher. Perhaps her adoptive parents were a little too good to be true but they are offset but the other parents and foster parents in the book. This won the 2017 National Book Award for Young People and is worth reading even for those who do not normally read YA.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom – When I started seeing rhapsodic reviews of Six of Crows, a young adult fantasy, I got it on audio but could not at first get into it at all. Then I realized the author had a whole Grisha universe going on, so I read her first series (which turned out not to be necessary, although I enjoyed it) and began Six of Crows in book form. It turned out this was very clever of me because by the time I had fallen in love with her six misfit characters, author Bardugo had finished the sequel! These are also stories of vengeance, softened by the power of friendship.

The Hate U Give – Perhaps the most powerful book I read of the year! Starr Carter is a black teen caught between two worlds. She lives in a primarily black project but attends a private school in an exclusive and primarily white neighborhood. When her best friend is killed by an overzealous policeman, she is the only witness and has to decide whether to go public or not. I will be leading a book discussion on May 17th as part of my library’s Racial Justice and Inclusion series of events – please join us!

Juvenile
The War I Finally Won – a wonderful sequel to The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, which, yes, you must read first! Hmm, four books set during WWII – do you see a pattern here? In the first book, which I thought should have won the Newbery Medal, Ada and her brother were evacuated to the British countryside and make a new life for themselves with Susan, a lonely woman who has lost her partner. Now, Ada’s abusive birth mother has died in the Blitz (hooray! now the reader doesn’t have to worry this horrendous parent will reclaim her children) but as Ada copes with wartime deprivations, a Jewish refugee, and tragedy, she has to overcome her own insecurities in order to help others survive the trauma of war.

Promising Newcomer
The Hanover Square Affair – this is a regency historical mystery by Ashley Gardner that I would here is an excerpt). This is a nice twist on the usually poor but honest heroine trying to make her fortune, and I look forward to more from this author.
never have come across had it not been recommended as a free eBook (I still read most of my books in real book format). It is the first book in a series about an impoverished military officer, returning to England after fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

* * *
I read a lot of suspense fiction this year, including Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Ann Cleeves, Harlen Coben, and way too many serial killer books from forgettable authors who should emphasize character development over gore. After visiting Edinburgh, I decided to try Ian Rankin but Inspector Rebus has not yet inspired me to seek out more in this series. I continue to review for Publishers Weekly but was not assigned anything this year that really impressed me (and couldn’t tell you even if it had!