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Review: The Lake Wobegon Virus by Garrison Keillor

The Lake Wobegon Virus

It’s rare for a new book by one of my favorite authors to sneak up on me, but somehow Garrison Keillor managed to publish The Lake Wobegon Virus with little or any fanfare last year.

Maybe it was because fans (well, at least this one) were disappointed by Keillor’s last journey to Lake Wobegon. Or maybe it was that his autobiography warranted a bit more of the marketing push and resources. Either way, it made it feel like reading The Lake Wobegon Virus is like discovering an episode of an old favorite TV show that you’d somehow missed through all the times watching and rewatching that show — comforting and familiar with a reminder of what you love about the property without necessarily stoking or diminishing the flames of your fandom.

A virus is sweeping through the small town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve with people acting strangely and being ruthlessly honest with each other. Some chalk it up to unpasteurized cheese getting out into the population while others think that mysterious billionaire buying up large chunks of real estate might be the culprit.

The thing that took me out of Keillor’s last several visits to Lake Wobegon was a feeling that he’d become too cynical for his own good — we were no longer laughing with the characters but at them. With The Lake Wobegon Virus. Keillor inserts a fictional version of himself into his fictional town and the novel feels like early works. There were moments that brought a smile to my face and a chuckle while reading that were, quite frankly, not present in the last few novels.

Keillor’s fictional doppelganger makes repeated references to avoiding writing his memoirs — which makes me think the real-life Keillor was having fiction reflect reality a bit. I could see Keillor using this novel as an escape from writing his memoirs or maybe as a warm-up to doing the work of examining his own life and putting down those details on the printed page.

The storytelling is very episodic in nature, feeling like Keillor is tying together some of his monologs from the waning days of his hosting The Prairie Home Companion. And while there is the pervading threat of the bad cheese hanging over things, it’s the stories of the lives of the people and the town that kept me going.

In many ways, this one feels like Keillor putting a final bow on his fictional small town — and I’ve got to admit that had me feeling a bit sentimental as the final page flipped by. I came away from the novel feeling a bit like I’d spent the last few moments when one of my favorite writers in the fictional world of his that I loved so much. If this is the end, it’s a nice way to go, reminding me of what I feel in love with Keillor’s writing and the town of Lake Wobegon all those decades ago.

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Review: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The Wife UpstairsI’ve never read Jane Eyre, so I can’t speak to how faithful to the original Rachel Hawkin’s updated retelling, The Wife Upstairs is or isn’t. What I can speak to is that sense that this novel never quite connected with me.

Set in Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is on the run from her past. Working as a dog-walker for the city’s elite, Jane meets Eddie Rochester. Eddie’s wife disappeared (along with her best friend) under mysterious circumstances and is presumed dead.

So, of course, these two begin dating and their relationship moves rather quickly from dating to living together to engaged. Jane doesn’t want a big wedding for fear of publicity bringing unwanted questions from her past life, but her old roommate is more than willing to blackmail her to keep those pursuing her at bay. Jane works to keep one step ahead of her past, teasing readers with what it may or may not be for far longer than I had much patience for.

That really sums up my disappointment with The Wife Upstairs. It teases us for far too long (though we know a bit about what Eddie is up to early on) without giving sufficient answers to the questions raised until I’d long since lost most of my interest in Jane. I suppose if I’d cracked open a copy of Jane Eyre at some point in my life, I’d already know a lot of what is revealed in the final third of the book. But that might have ruined some of the “thrill” of discovering all this for myself.

Another issue with The Wife Upstairs is that it attempts to be a domestic suspense thriller without offering much in the way of thrills or suspense. I found myself more relieved to finally be done with the novel than satisfied with the overall reading experience once I turned the final page.

Overall, a disappointment.

I received a digital ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Audiobook Review:The Effort by Claire Holroyde

The Effort

An updated take on Lucifer’s Hammer, Claire Holroyde’s The Effort speculates that it (still) wouldn’t take much for civilization as we know it to collapse and our world to descend into chaos. In the case of The Effort, it’s a large comet that is on a collision course with our planet. Holroyde bounces between multiple characters in the story, from members of a team, tasked with finding a way to save the planet from destruction to those dealing with civilization as we know it falling into chaos as some of humanity’s more base tendencies toward self-preservation kick in.

Like Lucifer’s Hammer, I found myself slowly starting to root for the cosmic calamity to befall the planet and start getting rid of certain characters, chief among them the head scientist Ben. Ben’s worst tendencies include not allowing members of his team to manifest any physical appearance that time is passing and his lack of consideration for those he doesn’t consider of immediate benefit or impact to the group trying to find a last-second way to save us all from destruction. Continue reading

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Review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes

Have you ever got to the end of a book and wondered — what the heck did I just read?!?

If not, then you might want to pick up Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes because it’s got one of the most WTF endings I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, the ending is so WTF, that any conversation about the book is going to naturally have to go into detail about it. You are suitably warned.

When single-mother Louise meets David in a bar, the chemistry between them is electric. But, he’s married, so Louise ends up not pursuing more than a semi-drunk flirtation with him. Things get a bit more awkward when it turns out that David is the new doctor at the counseling clinic where Louise is employed part-time. Despite a conversation in which both of them declare that seeing each other is a bad idea, the chemistry continues to be there.

Things get even more complicated with Louise runs into Adele, David’s wife. The two strike up a friendship, though Louise conveniently omits that she flirted with Adele’s husband and that she and David have started an affair (apparently behind Adele’s back, though the first-person chapters from Adele’s point of view make it clear that she not only knows about this, she’s also manipulating both sides for….well, more on that later).

If you’re thinking we’ve even reached the depths of the WTF, we aren’t even in the same zip code yet.

Through flashbacks, we find out that Adele has an interesting past — her parents died in a fire, she’s wealthy but she’s signed over all her money to David, and she spent time getting mental help while David was in college. It’s at the institution that she meets Rob, who she gets close to during her time. They get so close that Adele invites him to come to stay with her should Rob’s family kick him out if and when he backslides from his drug habit.

If you’re wondering who Rob is and why Behind Her Eyes keeps flashing back to him and turns over a good bit of the novel’s real estate to him, the answer becomes clear in the final pages. And it’s once the answer becomes clear that the question of whether or not you love the novel or want to throw it against the wall in frustration will be answered. Continue reading

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Review: The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

The Bone Maker

Sarah Beth Durst’s latest stand-alone fantasy novel offers a unique magic system, some quirky characters, and a fantasy-take on the “getting the band back together” story.

Years ago, five heroes defeated the evil Elkor and went their separate ways, becoming the stuff of legend. Twenty-five years later, Kreya’s legend has become a bit darker — she lives alone in a tower, keeping alive her husband (who died in the battle) through the use of dark and illegal magics. Increasingly desperate to find a source of human bones to cast the spells and give her just a few more hours with the love of her life, Kreya hatches on a plot that will eventually involve her old crew getting back together.

Of course, there’s a reason some bands break up. And as the band gets back together in The Bone Maker, Kreya come to realize that maybe they didn’t defeat Elkor as utterly as the legends say.

There aren’t many times when it comes to fantasy novels that I wish the author had extended a series. That isn’t necessarily the case with The Bone Maker. While Kreya gets solid character work, the rest of the crew doesn’t feel as deep or as well realized. I kept wondering if Durst might have been better served by making this a duology, allowing us to have a bit more of an investment in the characters.

It would also give us a chance to enjoy her well-realized magical system. I enjoy fantasy where there are limits or consequences to using the magical system and that’s the case with what Durst has realized here.

The Bone Maker offers an intriguing magical system, some dark character takes and is a stand-alone fantasy that left me wanting just a bit more. An overall success and one that has me intrigued to give some of Durst’s other fantastic worlds a try.

I received a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Some Quick Reviews: All Systems Red, The Thursday Murder Club, All Creatures Great and Small

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I’ve been hearing a lot about the Murderbot Diaries from people I trust within the literary community, so I decided it might be finally time to get the series a try.

Murderbot is a half-human/half-cyborg creation that has hacked its own software to give itself freewill. Murderbot turns around and uses that free will to begin binge-watching daytime television. Quite frankly, Murderbot would rather watch TV than help the human survey team explore the planet they’ve been assigned.

Turns out that in the future, the government still goes with the lowest bidder and may not always be upfront about the dangers involved. So, the human team is facing some unusual dangers out there.

The premise of a killing machine gone rogue to binge-watch TV seems uncannily relevant as we continue to face the pandemic. Murderbot’s snarky sense of humor and first-person narration are well done. The novella suffers a bit when it comes to giving us a fully realized crew — there are only about two crew members who get any character development. And the novella is just long enough so the fun doesn’t wear off.

I’m intrigued enough to want to read the second installment and see what happens next. Continue reading

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Review: Trial and Error by Robert Whitlow

Trial and Error

When I first read Robert Whitlow, I was impressed by the authenticity of his novels — not just the legal thriller aspect, but also the journeys and arcs he put his characters through. Over the last two decades, I’ve read just about everything Whitlow has written. While I’ve enjoyed watching him stretch himself as a writer, there’s still something comforting about him returning to his roots with his latest novel. Trial and Error.

Seventeen years ago, Buddy Smith became a father. He got to spend a few days with his daughter before she and her mother vanished. Buddy’s spent the last seventeen years trying to find his daughter, all while building a legal career in his home of Milton County. Buddy’s passion is renewed when he finds evidence his father was supporting the mother of his child financially for years but kept it a secret from Buddy and his mother.

Clerk of the court and local softball team coach, Gracie Blaylock is on her own journey. She’s been Buddy’s friend since high school and she’s been praying for Buddy and his family for years. With the introduction of a new sheriff’s deputy who specializes in missing persons, could Gracie’s prayers be finally answered in ways she does and doesn’t expect?

Whitlow’s early legal thrillers centered on good people who have to make difficult choices. The one thing that always stood out about Whitlow’s novels was the authentic journey his flawed characters go on during the course of the novel. Whitlow does feature the story of a person’s conversion, but it’s not presented as a moment in which all of that person’s problems are swept away. There may be a peace that comes over that person and a new perspective, but it’s not like waving a magic wand to make all the issues and problems go away. (I’m looking at you LeftBehind novels).

Of course, part of the secret is that Whitlow gets you to invest in his characters so when the pivotal moment comes, you feel it along with the character. Whitlow also doesn’t have everyone magically gets saved on the same timeline. There’s a character of a visiting judge who is challenged by Gracie and begins to examine his life, but we don’t see a conversion from him. (It may happen off-screen, but Whitlow doesn’t tell us one way or the other)

Whitlow’s characters shine through as do his legal storylines. There are multiple stories going on and Whitlow expertly weaves them together. I found myself turning the last page of this one feeling fully satisfied with Trial and Error as a stand-alone story but that I wouldn’t mind going back to the world of Buddy and Gracie again, should Whitlow be so inclined.

This is one of the best novels Whitlow has written in a long time. Highly recommended.

I received a digital ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Every Last Secret by A.R. Torre

Every Last Secret

Being naked in Cat’s bed was a fantasy I was already entertaining, and I ran my hand along her white marble countertop, making a silent vow to christen that surface, also.

Cat Winthrope seemingly has it all — the perfect husband, William, the gorgeous home, the social standing among the who’s who of their California community.

Enter Neena, the life coach who can help put William’s company over the top. But Neena is harboring deep-seated jealousy of everything Cat has — and Neena is willing to do whatever it takes to set herself as the next Mrs. Winthrope.

Filled with dark, duplicitous characters, A.R. Torre’s Every Secret Thing will have you questioning your allegiances and changing “sides” in the ongoing struggle between Cat and Neena throughout the course of the book. Neena and her husband, Matt, buy the house next door to Wiliam and Cat, insinuating themselves in the lives of the Winthrope’s at every opportunity — both professionally and personally. But neither side knows the other is playing a long game, leading to a suspenseful, “I can’t believe she’s doing this” final third of the novel. Be warned that once you get past a certain point, odds are you won’t be able to stop turning the pages in order to see what happens or develops next.

Part of that hook is Torre’s telling the story from the alternating viewpoint of Neena and Cat. Seeing how each views the other and the mounting frustration and conflict between the two makes for a rich, rewarding payoff in the final pages. The final third of the novel is rich with melodrama – but it’s all earned by some Torre’s laying a solid foundation for it early in the story.

As I said earlier, don’t be shocked to find your allegiances changing — or that you’ll at least understand what motivates each side in the ever-escalating conflict. There is a final twist or two that had me raising an eyebrow a bit, but at that point, I’d just decided to go with the crazy and enjoy what was unfolding.

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Review: Forget This Ever Happened by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Forget This Ever Happened

Learning that Cassandra Rose Clarke was penning a couple of Star Trek tie-in novels, I decided to sample some of her back catalogs. The first book that hit my library reserve pile was the young-adult urban fantasy, Forget This Ever Happened.

The town of Indianola, Texas is off-the-grid, even in the early ’90s. That’s because there are monsters who live out by the old power planet who live in a tentative alliance with the town’s humans. And anyone who leaves town forgets about the monsters and details of their lives in the small town.

In the summer of 1993, Claire is exiled to Indianola, Texas to care for her aging grandmother. When a monster shows up in her yard, taunting her, Claire calls the local exterminator to remove the creature back to the power plant. That’s how she meets Julie, whose family owns multiple local businesses. Claire’s grandmother is convinced that Julie’s family “stole” their family home out from under them years ago and is less than pleased with Claire and Julie’s strike up a friendship. Claire’s grandmother would rather she spent time with Audrey, the girl who is almost too good to be true.

The first third of Forget This Ever Happened builds the world of Indianola and the budding relationship between Julie and Claire. Pieces of the larger mystery of what’s happening in town and the connection to everyone are slowly sewn and established. Once the pieces are in place, the novel proceeds at a slow-burn toward the final revelations of just what’s going on in the town and why. Clarke earns each of the reveals, all while giving us a good dollop of teen angst. This angst comes in the form of Claire’s rising attraction to Julie and her feelings about it.

To say too much more would probably ruin some of the developments of the novel’s last third. Forget This Ever Happened is an intriguing treat with strong, female protagonists that earn most of the surprises from the novel’s final third. Given that Clarke’s upcoming TNG novel will focus on Dr. Crusher from season seven, I can’t help but look forward to that book arriving on my shelf later this year.

Until then, there are more novels from Clarke to explore — something I’m looking forward to doing.

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A Quick Audiobook Round-Up

This Savage Song (Monsters of Verity, #1)This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

Victoria Schwab is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers — and I’m having a lot of fun exploring her catalog.

One aspect that makes Shwab’s output so appealing is her world-building. And that strength is fully on display with This Savage Song. In an urban fantasy world, a monster wants to be a human, and a human resisting the urge to become a monster. August and Kate come from the ruling families on opposite sides of a brewing conflict who are sent to the same school. Kate has been trying to get back home with her father since her mother died and August is sent undercover to keep an eye on her.

Schwab resists the urge to make August and Kate into a Romeo-and-Juliet-like couple, instead opting to make them become friends and reluctant allies in an attempt to keep a seemingly unstoppable impending war from happening. Each has his or her own secrets (August’s is particularly intriguing) and could be a useful pawn in the other side’s attempts to sway the balance of power.

Schwab’s world is full of strong characters, careful world-building, and earned dramatic escalations. The novel builds up the tension and does end on a cliffhanger that left me curious to pick up the next installment in the series and continue to explore this world and the lives of August and Kate. Continue reading

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