Pub Day Repost: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing: I don’t think John Gray’s books cover marriages like this one

My Lovely WifeMy Lovely Wife

by Samantha Downing

eARC, 359 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019

Read: February 28 – March 2, 2019

You’ve been married for a decade and a half, the kids are in high school, you’re pretty established in your careers, middle age is around the corner — how do you keep the spark in your marriage alive (or reignite it)? There are dozens — probably hundreds — of suggestions out there, but probably none quite so . . . homicidal? The couple at the center of My Lovely Wife murders women — an idea so out there, I can’t imagine there’s enough wine in the world to get Kathy Lee and Hoda to promote.

They pick the victims together, he goes out and gets the women into a vulnerable situation and then she takes over while he spends time with the kids. This is an over-simplification, but not by much. This joint-project does seem to bring them together, giving them a common goal, something to talk about — it even seems to rekindle the romance. Sometimes their interaction is pretty sweet — sometimes, it’s a little sad. But at the core, you can see these two featuring in a very different kind of novel if only they had a different . . . activity to bond over.

Meanwhile, their son is acting defiant toward his father’s authority and is sneaking around with a girl. Their daughter is becoming more and more anxious — a media-induced anxiety disorder of some sort. While they’re dealing with the difficulties of parenting adolescents, they’re focused on their next target and evading the police. You have to feel for them as parents, really. They’re doing everything they should and you just can’t tell if the children will respond the way they hope. It’s a clear sign of their dedication to each other that they keep going.

It’s a great premise, really — and that alone is going to earn it some accolades. Downing does a pretty good job delivering on the promise of it, too. But after the original “What??” moment (which wasn’t that much of a surprise if you’ve read the blurb, but was still skillfully executed), I waited a long time to truly get hooked by this story. I kept feeling like I was alllllllllmost hooked, but I never got past the mildly curious level. I kept waiting for the hook, expecting it, wanting it — but it just didn’t come. Until some time in the last fifth of the book — and then even though I’d seen two of the big reveals coming, I hadn’t seen the reasoning behind the most important one. Also, Downing absolutely nailed the climactic portions of this book — all the dominoes she’d spent the whole novel setting up came down just as designed and were absolutely riveting to watch.

I want to complain about how long it took for me to really get hooked, to get invested in the outcome of the book — and I guess I am — but it was all worth it. I do think it’s dangerous to hope that an audience will stick without you that long — but seeing the design and how she set it all up, I just don’t know how to quibble that much. Because the pay off was just that well done.

This isn’t your typical story about killers — it’s not over the top and funny, it’s not dark and moody, it feels like a book about a fairly stable couple living in the nice part of Atlanta. Which is what the book is, but this couple has some pretty horrible secrets to explore. While it didn’t click for me until the very end, I can easily see where many people are going to love this book. Downing is a writer to watch, and I know I’ll be eagerly waiting for whatever comes next.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, but it did not affect the substance of this post beyond giving me something upon which to opine.

—–

3.5 Stars

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The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo by James Bailey: This Kid’s Struggles will Bring A Smile to Your Face

The First World Problems of Jason Van OtterlooThe First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo

by James Bailey
Series: The Jason Van Otterloo Trilogy, Book 1

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
2018
Read: March 15, 2019

Subject: New worst day of my life

If you have stock in me, sell it now. Or is it buy? Buy low, right? Then buy, buy, buy, because if JVO shares go any lower it can only mean I’m dead. Nothing is going right and everything is going wrong. Very wrong.

It’s been awhile since I read an epistolary novel (maybe Where’d You Go, Bernadette? — oh, and The Summer Holidays Survival Guide from last year — duh — I should stop thinking before I have to rewrite this whole paragraph), but I’ve always enjoyed them. There’s something about the structure, the conceit, the immediacy of it all that really appeals to me, and has since the day I first cracked the cover of Dear Mr. Henshaw 35 years ago or so.

This particular novel is a collection of e-mails from fifteen year-old Jason Van Otterloo (known by some as Otterpop, others just call him Jason) and his friends over the summer of 2003 in Seattle. This is a good setting for the book — it’s before the ubiquity of cell-phones/texting among teens, but at a time they could be emailing several times a day and it not seem strange (like it would in the mid-90s). I don’t know if that was Bailey’s thought process, but it’s what occurred to me. The emails are primarily Jason’s — not just because he’s prolific, but that’s a lot of it. Incidentally, I only caught one thing that jumped out at me as an anachronism — which is about the best that I can think of in an indie book set in the past (I don’t go looking for them, but they jump out at me. Binge-watching wasn’t a thing in 2003. At least not by that name)

Jason’s a pretty bookish kid who loves classic movies — not just AMC (back when that’s what the station was about), but there’s a theater near his home that shows old movies. His best friend, Drew (the recipient of most of his emails), frequently goes to those with him — they also play video games together, generally at Drew’s. Jason’s parents, Janice and Rob, aren’t in the running for Parents of the Year, to say the least. I’m not sure at what point Jason lost enough respect for the that he started calling them by their first name, but it could have been when he was pretty young. On the other hand, there’s enough venom in it (at least the way it reads to me) that it might be a recent development.

Janice shows the occasional burst of maternal activity or instinct, but it’s rare. Rather than a father, Rob seems like the bullying older brother character in most books I read as a kid. But in general, the two of them act like they’re stuck in their early 20’s — coming home from work long enough to greet each other and Jason, then they leave (not together) to meet up with friends and get drunk. Occasionally, they’ll get into a fight with each other, but nothing too serious. It doesn’t appear there’s any intentional abuse — physical or mental. It’s primarily neglect that they’re guilty of. Over the course of the summer, Rob does say a few things that will likely cause emotional scars when Jason has a few years to think about them, but they’re unintentionally mean (one was said when Rob was attempting to be nice and fatherly).

Generally, Jason’s e-mails are about whatever antics his parents are up to, arranging to meet Drew or whoever else, Jason’s soliciting Drew for advice about a girl he meets (he ignores almost everything Drew says, to the reader’s amusement and Drew’s frustration), and Jason recruiting Drew or someone to get summer jobs together. There’s an ongoing thread about a new neighbor who enjoys sunbathing, and Jason enjoys (hopefully surreptitiously) watching her. Rob enjoys watching her, too, but doesn’t bother trying to be surreptitious.

Jason’s emails are largely self-centered. Most of the stories told are his, not Drew’s. He does seem to care about Drew and is interested when Drew unloads a little. But largely, the relationship seems to be about Drew listening to Jason. Drew gets something out of it, however — maybe offline — because he seems emotionally-centered enough (for a fifteen year-old) to not put up with Jason as much as he does, if Jason just didn’t contribute anything to the friendship. Just don’t ask me what it is. His self-centeredness seems typical for his age, and it doesn’t make him a bad kid — just a selfish one, and a lot of that is because he’s never been parented by anyone who has a clue. Although, really, I’m not sure how many kids who have been well-parented who don’t act like that.

His parent’s (individually and corporately) show a signs of self-improvement — AA, marriage counseling, and others. Jason is openly skeptical about these efforts — perhaps because he’s seen similar things before. Not only is he skeptical, but he seems to actively subvert these efforts. It seems odd for a kid who spends so much time complaining about his parents to complain about them trying to be better — but it’s honest. He doesn’t believe in them, so why get his hopes up that this time will be any different? Sure, from the reader’s perspective it’s easy to say that these reforms might be longer-lived if he supported them. But from Jason’s? Nah.

There is a little character development over the course of the novel — but not a lot, But it’s just a few months, so there shouldn’t be a lot, right? What’s there seems genuine and true to the character — which is great. At the end of the day, you’ll have enjoyed watching Jason struggle and survive — learning enough to keep going.

Jason’s optimistic and amusing — which is says a lot about him. The whole book is told with a light touch –it’s not overly comic, but you grin as Jason recounts his latest embarrassment with Gina, or Rob’s most recent humiliating escapades — or even as he and Drew talk about their mutual astonishment when another friend has some romantic success. Things are bad, but they’re not bleak. They’re even kind of fun.

The cover, by the way, is perfect. It not only reflects a plot point, but it encapsulates the feel of the book. In a figurative sense the world pees on Jason the way this dog literally does. Yet, it’s kinda cute and amusing while it’s happening. Several good things happen to the boy, but overall, the book is about his problems (right?) and his reactions to them.

I don’t know what a YA reader would think of this — I imagine they’d find Jason relatable and likeable, but I’m not sure. But for those of us with enough distance from their YA days, it’s something that can be read with an air of “I remember when life was like that.” Even if it’s set over a decade later than my own teen years, I know people like Jason, I had friends who had a Gina in their life, and I dreamed of a girl like Sian. I’m probably not alone in this. This is a comfort-food kind of read — it’s entertaining and makes you feel good. I get kind of a Thomas Rockwell or 80’s version of Todd Strasser feel from this, very much a Lad Lit starter kit kind of thing, now that I think about it — which is good. Young Adults need something that’s not dystopian. There’s a sequel coming out in a week or two, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.

—–

3.5 Stars
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Not Everyone is Special by Josh Denslow: A Short Story Collection that’ll Gobsmack You at Least Once

Not Everyone is SpecialNot Everyone is Special

by Josh Denslow


eARC, 160 pg.
7.13 Books, 2019

Read: February 2 – 24, 2019

I’m not sure what to say about this collection of 15 short stories. They’re all really well-written — there was one or two I didn’t care for, two that I really liked — but they all showed skill, craft, and achieved what I think Denslow intended to achieve. But I’m not sure that I can muster up any excitement over the collection.

Some of the stories fall into the SF/Speculative Fiction category, but by and large these are “General Fiction” (whatever exactly that is). Some are comic, some are very tragic (I think you could make the case for all of the stories containing elements of both).

“Proximity” a bittersweet story about a young man on the brink of maturity (but resisting stepping over it) who happens to be able to teleport is one of the best things I’ve read in months. A great combination of imagination and story, that sadly, I read the same day I read the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and completely forgot about until I started flipping through this book again while writing this. (but, man, am I glad I remember it now…)

Then there’s “Mousetrap,” which starts with the line,

I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent.

And openings don’t get much better than that (the story lives up to it).

There are a handful of other really high high points in this collection. I can’t talk about “Dorian Vandercleef” beyond encouraging you to read it — but you really should. “Blake Bishop Believes in Love” is sweet, grotesque and unpleasant (intentionally so). “Extra Ticket,” a story about a teenager dealing (and not well) with grieving over a friend’s death would serve as a handy example of the concept of “poignant,” if you ever find yourself in need of one.

I might not be over-the-moon with this book, but I did like it. I can even see me being in a situation where I’d re-read parts or all of it (I don’t normally re-read short story books, but I’m not opposed to the idea). I would absolutely read more by Denslow — long form or short form. Not Everyone is Special is a good book — some of the stories might even be more than good. I’d absolutely encourage you to get your hands on this to judge for yourself. I promise you’ll find at least one story that’ll knock your socks off.

—–

3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
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My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing: I don’t think John Gray’s books cover marriages like this one

My Lovely WifeMy Lovely Wife

by Samantha Downing


eARC, 359 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019

Read: February 28 – March 2, 2019

You’ve been married for a decade and a half, the kids are in high school, you’re pretty established in your careers, middle age is around the corner — how do you keep the spark in your marriage alive (or reignite it)? There are dozens — probably hundreds — of suggestions out there, but probably none quite so . . . homicidal? The couple at the center of My Lovely Wife murders women — an idea so out there, I can’t imagine there’s enough wine in the world to get Kathy Lee and Hoda to promote.

They pick the victims together, he goes out and gets the women into a vulnerable situation and then she takes over while he spends time with the kids. This is an over-simplification, but not by much. This joint-project does seem to bring them together, giving them a common goal, something to talk about — it even seems to rekindle the romance. Sometimes their interaction is pretty sweet — sometimes, it’s a little sad. But at the core, you can see these two featuring in a very different kind of novel if only they had a different . . . activity to bond over.

Meanwhile, their son is acting defiant toward his father’s authority and is sneaking around with a girl. Their daughter is becoming more and more anxious — a media-induced anxiety disorder of some sort. While they’re dealing with the difficulties of parenting adolescents, they’re focused on their next target and evading the police. You have to feel for them as parents, really. They’re doing everything they should and you just can’t tell if the children will respond the way they hope. It’s a clear sign of their dedication to each other that they keep going.

It’s a great premise, really — and that alone is going to earn it some accolades. Downing does a pretty good job delivering on the promise of it, too. But after the original “What??” moment (which wasn’t that much of a surprise if you’ve read the blurb, but was still skillfully executed), I waited a long time to truly get hooked by this story. I kept feeling like I was alllllllllmost hooked, but I never got past the mildly curious level. I kept waiting for the hook, expecting it, wanting it — but it just didn’t come. Until some time in the last fifth of the book — and then even though I’d seen two of the big reveals coming, I hadn’t seen the reasoning behind the most important one. Also, Downing absolutely nailed the climactic portions of this book — all the dominoes she’d spent the whole novel setting up came down just as designed and were absolutely riveting to watch.

I want to complain about how long it took for me to really get hooked, to get invested in the outcome of the book — and I guess I am — but it was all worth it. I do think it’s dangerous to hope that an audience will stick without you that long — but seeing the design and how she set it all up, I just don’t know how to quibble that much. Because the pay off was just that well done.

This isn’t your typical story about killers — it’s not over the top and funny, it’s not dark and moody, it feels like a book about a fairly stable couple living in the nice part of Atlanta. Which is what the book is, but this couple has some pretty horrible secrets to explore. While it didn’t click for me until the very end, I can easily see where many people are going to love this book. Downing is a writer to watch, and I know I’ll be eagerly waiting for whatever comes next.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, but it did not affect the substance of this post beyond giving me something upon which to opine.

—–

3.5 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: The Death Pictures by Simon Hall: A Solid Sequel featuring a Procedural and a Puzzle

Man, I hope there are more of these on the way from Fahrenheit…fun books.

The Death PicturesThe Death Pictures

by Simon Hall
Series: The TV Detective, #2

Kindle Edition, 282 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: July 10 – 11, 2018
So here we are a few months after the events of The TV Detective, and while Dan Groves, TV reporter, and DCI Adam Breen aren’t working together any more, their friendship has grown and both of the careers are improving from their collaboration. So when there’s a serial rapist on the loose — one who made a point of leaving a calling card at the crime scenes to get public attention — both of their bosses are interested in them renewing their partnership (even if no one ever gets to hear about his calling card).

Around the same time, there’s a famous artist dying of cancer who is using his impending death as a launching pad for a contest of sorts — it raises money for charity, and raises his public profile a bit, too (not that it needed much). Dan has been tapped by his producer and the artist’s wife to help with the final part of the contest, and to do his final interview — most to be aired upon his death. This is so far from the rape case that it seems odd to spend time on it — until the artist dies under mysterious circumstances. A murder inquiry into a celebrity’s death obviously gets the police’s and public’s attention — although it’s really seen as more of a distraction from protecting women who are prospective targets of the rapist by Adam and his team. For the most part at this point, Adam and Dan tackle the murder investigation and his team handle the rapes, and Dan pretty much only covers the case as a reporter (with an inside track, of course), but not as an investigator.

Arrests are made pretty early on in both cases — it’s in the aftermath of the murder investigation and the contest that the latter part of the novel focuses on. The puzzle’s solution is clever, but the reader can see it coming (we do have a little more information than all the characters), but that only adds to the sense of drama leading up to the Reveal. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Dan through this story — both his official work as a reporter or with the police and his unofficial personal obsession with the puzzle.

As for the rape story? I don’t mean to sound cold, but there was something very cookie-cutter about the motivation and perpetrator. Horrible, yes; disturbing, yes, but nothing that hasn’t been on Law & Order: SVU an estimated 3,709 times — I’m not saying badly written or boring, just something I’ve seen before. But when Adam gets him in the interview room and he starts laying out his defense? That was utterly chilling. As I write this, I imagine the accused’s approach is not completely novel in Crime Fiction, but man . . . the way that Hall depicts this guy? Chilling.

Dan’s frequent work on the contest is reminiscent of his search for the Ted Hughes Memorial in The TV Detective, but is obviously tied more closely to the plot of this novel. I don’t recall another series doing something like this in book after book — I hope Hall continues it.

There’s something that happened to Dan in the past that was alluded to in the previous book and is talked around a good deal here. We’re not going to get more details on that in Book 3 (I bet), but I expect to see it wreak havoc on Dan’s life and various relationships soon. Similarly, there’s something that happens in this book to Adam — that will possibly do worse pretty soon. Both of these guys are ticking psychological bombs.

I have one gripe: the formatting. There are occasional — maybe even rare — white space breaks between sections of the story, but by and large they are conspicuously absent. Which is problematic when the perspective changes from character to character — what’s worse is when the perspective change introduces an entirely new character and you don’t know how this new name connects with anything. It honestly only caused a real problem for me once, but was frequently annoying.

I should stress when your complaint about a book has to do with Kindle layout (who knows what the paperback looks like), there’s a lot that’s working pretty well.

The Death Pictures is a solidly entertaining mystery novel that recaptures a lot of the high points of its predecessor, but isn’t just a repeat of it. This series has legs, that’s obvious, and I look forward to returning to it to see what happens next.

.

—–

3.5 Stars

The Murder Quadrille by Fidelis Morgan: A Clever, Well-Plotted, Fiasco of Crime

The Murder QuadrilleThe Murder Quadrille

by Fidelis Morgan


Kindle Edition, 461 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2016

Read: February 18 – 19, 2019

           Halfway through the dinner party Sarah Beaumont decided that she would definitely leave Martin, her husband of ten years.

As the thought blossomed in her mind she blushed. Bowing her head to hide her flushed cheeks, she toyed with the peas on her plate, chasing one behind a piece of sautéed potato before stabbing it with her fork. To tell the truth, she wished she wasn’t there at all, sitting round the table with a bunch of jabbering strangers, one of whom was Martin.

That’s pretty much the high point of the book for Sarah and Martin. Come to think of it, things go downhill for pretty much everyone at the dinner party. Before the meal is even complete, the wheels come off and disaster ensues.

In addition to Sarah and her jerk of a husband, the dinner party is made up of Martin’s friend/lawyer and his girlfriend, Martin’s bank manager (probably Sarah’s, too, but Martin’s the only one he deals with), and their temporary neighbor — a crime writer from the States. Naturally, they spend the bulk of the meal discussing a missing — and presumed dead — librarian. We get to spend time with each of them as we watch things fall apart. I’m pretty sure almost anything I say beyond this point will be a spoiler, and I’ve written and re-written the next sentence a dozen times (and what will be posted will be none of those).

You know those episodes of Frasier where there’s a misunderstanding of some sort, and things start to go wrong, and then things snowball out of control until the last couple of minutes when it all seems to get worse as he explains everything? Yeah, I know, that’s like 47% of the episodes. So you know what I’m saying.

This is a lot like that — but instead of Frasier’s career, or Niles’ reputation, or the fate of Martin’s chair; we’re dealing with life, death, murder charges, police and decomposition rates.

It’s gripping, it’s funny, it’s chaotic, it’s a riot. Morgan’s got a great style, an interesting vocabulary, and a plot that will keep you guessing. I probably shouldn’t have said chaotic — this is a carefully choreographed dance, as flashy and exciting as the best contender at the Jackrabbit Slim’s Twist Contest (or something less fun, like Dancing with the Stars).

There’s one big string left dangling at the end — which drives me crazy. It’s really not important, but she did such a great job tieing up the rest of the loose strings so it’s presence is worse. But given as fun as the rest of the book is, it’s totally forgivable. This one is a treat, you should give it a read. And if you do, maybe you can do a better job of selling this outrageous novel than I can.

—–

3.5 Stars

Unstoppable Arsenal by Jeffery H. Haskell: Well, that escalated quickly . . .

Unstoppable ArsenalUnstoppable Arsenal

by Jeffery H. Haskell
Series: Full Metal Superhero, #2

Paperback, 286 pg.
2017

Read: January 28, 2019


This book is just pure entertainment — it’s not trying to be anything else. You’ve got a super-genius whose inventions and investments have made her super-rich (to fund further inventions, primarily) who has used this genius to turn herself into an Iron Man-like superhero. She’s pretty much done all this to enable her to find her parents — which she did at the end of the last book. She starts this book by going to retrieve them from their imprisonment.

But they’re not prisoners — they’re content, happy, hard-workers in a lab with utterly no memory of a daughter. Kate, Amelia’s friend and telepath determines their minds have been altered and the only one who can restore their memories is the one who altered them. Launching Amelia’s next big quest.

She soon discovers that there are a lot of powerful telepaths who are unaccounted for and maybe the conspiracy she’s been theorizing about isn’t a bunch of evil masterminds undermining the super-heroes of the US. Maybe, there’s some mind control shaping the questionable decisions.

As if all this isn’t enough, Amelia meets an actual, no fooling, mythological figure who forces her to realize there’s more than just science afoot in the world, and she’s told that literally the future of the human race depends on choices she’s making.

All this is told in the same fast, dynamic and engaging voice and style that characterized this first book. Haskell can tell a story in a way that seems effortless, which is too easy to overlook and take for granted. I put this down and had to fight the impulse to grab the next installment right away and not stop until I’d run out of books in this universe to read.

Oh, and there’s a killer last line, and I’m excited about what that development is going to bring.

I don’t have a lot to say really — this is just a fun series. Period. Great super-hero action, with just enough depth to satisfy, without going so far that it slows things down. I don’t know what Haskell’s long-term plans are, but I could read another half-dozen of these books, easily.

—–

3.5 Stars

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