Monday, February 27, 2017

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Reviewed by Ambrea

“Everyone knows a couple like Jack and Grace.  He has looks and wealth; she has charm and elegance.  He’s a dedicated attorney who has never lost a case; she’s a flawless homemaker and a masterful gardener and cook, and she dotes on her disabled younger sister.  […]  You might not want to like them, but you do,” reads the cover.  Jack and Grace Angel sound like the perfect couple:  beautiful, sophisticated, enchanting, gracious.  It’s hard not to like them with their perfect house, their perfect dinner parties, their perfect marriage—except looks can be deceiving.

Jack isn’t the affable gentleman he claims to be, neither is he the doting husband nor the charming romantic who whisked Grace away to Thailand for their honeymoon; in fact, Grace knows better.  She knows what Jack is like when the shades are pulled and the doors are locked.  She knows what he’s after, like she knows he’ll stop at nothing to get it, even if it means destroying her in the process.  Left with no alternative, Grace knows she has to get out.

In Behind Closed Doors, B.A. Paris conjures a breathlessly thrilling and terrifyingly chilling novel.  I found it purely by accident when I glanced through a stack of newly cataloged books—and I was hooked by the first page.  Honestly, I was probably caught a little earlier than that when I skimmed the jacket cover and discovered an absolute gem of a review on the back from Publishers Weekly, which reads:
“Appearances can be deceiving[.]  Terror is contagious…and impending peril creates a ticking clock that propels this claustrophobic cat-and-mouse tale toward is grisly, gratifying conclusion.”

It made the novel sound slightly scandalous, and more than a little terrifying.  I couldn’t wait to dive in.

The plot is a simple, straightforward affair.  At its core, Behind Closed Doors is a survival story; however, it hinges upon the suspense which the author carefully builds as she peels back the layers of Grace’s story and reveals the monster behind Jack’s angelic fa├žade.  (See what I did there, huh?)  It’s a psychological thriller, and it’s a wonderful book.

Personally, I enjoyed reading Grace’s narrative.  She’s an eloquent narrator who evokes quick emotional responses, because it feels like she could be anyone—a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a coworker you only have the opportunity to talk with at lunch.  Literally, anyone—and it’s so easy to get wrapped up in her story, to feel her gut-wrenching desperation and her dwindling feelings of hope.  She’s a sympathetic character, a victim of terror and abuse, but she’s not helpless.  I liked that Grace can think for herself, that she can plot and plan, and, more to the point, that she poised to rescue herself.

Despite my affection for Grace, I have to say that Behind Closed Doors made me feel a lot of emotions—and very few of them were good.  If it isn’t obvious from the novel summary, Grace’s husband, Jack, is not a good person; in fact, he is, as she characterizes, a monster and I utterly despised him.  Even in the first chapter, in which Grace seems intentionally vague about her relationship with Jack, I had the feeling that all was not well.  There were red flags that made me perk up, that made me wonder, and I couldn’t help think, “Something isn’t right here.”

Well, something definitely isn’t right.

As the story progressed, things went from bad to worse.  Listening to Grace’s story, watching with appalled fascination as her terrible ordeal unfolded, I couldn’t help feeling very strongly that Jack needed to die.  Honestly, Behind Closed Doors made me feel very violent, like abnormally violent.  I couldn’t stand Jack—and it’s all because of an incident with a dog.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I felt so bad for Grace and her sister, Millie, and the psychological terror they must have endured; however, I was absolutely heartbroken for the dog.

I realize something of this nature had to happen to sell the book, so to speak.  It was just one more way of convincing the reader that Jack is horrible, heartless, depraved and, in a word, evil.  But I just couldn’t handle it.  I can’t stand when animals are hurt or killed in books.  My little heart just can’t take it.  Besides which, I have quickly realized I am not a nice person when something bad happens to a dog.

I wished all manner of terrible things on Jack.  I even had to skip to the end of the book and find out the conclusion, so I could reassure myself that I wasn’t setting myself up for complete and utter devastation.  I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I won’t go into detail, but I will say that the book blurb was right:  Behind Closed Doors has a grisly but oh, so satisfying ending.  Truthfully, I don’t believe I’ve ever been so relieved by the conclusion of a novel.  That final chapter was so very, very gratifying—one might even call it cathartic.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Paris Librarian by Mark Pryor

Reviewed by Jeanne

Hugo Marston, head of security for the American Embassy in Paris and former FBI profiler, receives a call from a librarian friend at the American Library. Paul Rogers knows that Hugo has an eye for collectable books and he has an interesting one he thinks Hugo might like.  When Hugo goes to purchase the book, he finds Paul in a locked room, quite dead.  It looks like natural causes, but there’s just something that feels wrong about the scene.  That feeling is magnified when Hugo discovers a young woman he’d met earlier who is researching an actress whose papers have been donated to the library—papers which were under Paul’s care and which someone, or perhaps several someones, seem determined to keep hidden.

This is my first Hugo Marston book, but it won’t be my last. For one thing, I really like Hugo.  He’s good at what he does—very good, indeed—but he also respects the abilities of others and works well with them. A good example is Lt. Camille Lerens, a French policewoman who works out of the serious crimes division: Hugo may suggest avenues of investigation, but her word is the final decision and he doesn’t try to undermine her. The same goes for his friends, including girlfriend Claudia. They come off as competent adults, not just supporting characters to make Hugo look good.

I also enjoy a good mystery that plays fair with the reader, and this one did. Having it as a locked room mystery in the grand old tradition (there are even secret rooms and passages!) was icing on the cake.

Finally, the Paris setting was well done.  There’s a sense of place without having the point belabored.

While I enjoyed this one and recommend it, there were times when I wished I had started with an earlier book as I had the strong sense that I would have understood more with some background.  Max, for example, is a friend and a good investigator but I think I would have appreciated his part more had I known more about him.  Lerens apparently has an extensive back story, explained succinctly but intriguingly at one point, and Merlyn had a large part to play in a previous book.

I do intend to remedy these gaps in the near future. Anyone looking for good, solidly plotted mysteries with well-developed, interesting characters and international settings should find this series to be a winner.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Nevermore: Hidden Figures, Lucifer Principle, Black Widowers, Fountainhead, Fire By Night

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore decided to start with Hidden Figures:  The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Recently produced as a movie, Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of African American women—math teachers with brilliant minds who were relegated to teaching in the South’s segregated schools—who became “human computers” during the labor shortages of World War II.  They quickly became indispensable with their incredible mathematical skills, assisting NASA and the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in some of the greatest successes in the space race.  Our reader was excited to pick up Shetterly’s book.  She noted it was easy to read and fairly interesting; however, she thought Hidden Figures could have used a good editor and a trim.  Moreover, she thought the book could have used a little more detail about the personal lives of these incredible women.  She wanted to learn more about them personally and their accomplishments, rather than where each woman fit into the grand scheme of things, and she would have loved to have seen pictures.

Next, Nevermore looked at The Lucifer Principle.  Written by Howard K. Bloom, The Lucifer Principle is a compelling psychological study that explores the “intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture,” according to the book jacket, “to put forth the thesis that ‘evil’ is…woven into our most basic biological fabric.”  Drawing on years of scholarly research and delving deep into the darkest parts of human psychology, Bloom creates a book with depth and a weighty feeling of importance, like Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.  Our reader said Bloom’s book was absolutely fascinating; in fact, she couldn’t put it down.  She even bought her own copy, so, as she told her fellow readers, “I could ponder it.”  She highly recommended it to her fellow members and passed it on to the next interested reader.

Switching gears, Nevermore shared The Casebook of the Black Widowers by famed science-fiction writer, Isaac Asimov.  A collection of short stories about the Black Widowers, a group of friends who create and solve mysteries, riddles, and puzzles, The Casebook of the Black Widowers proved to be a hit for our reader.  He noted that Asimov’s book was “very short, very easy, but very good,” calling it interesting and charming.  Asimov, in conjunction to being a writer, was a professor of biochemistry and often inserted intriguing tidbits of knowledge into each of his books, including The Case of the Black Widowers.  Our reader was especially impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by Asimov, saying he enjoyed how easy it was to learn something new.  “You’re learning as you’re reading,” he told his fellow readers, “but in a very easy [and accessible] way.”

Nevermore also took a long, hard look at Ayn Rand’s monolithic novel, The Fountainhead.  Considered a major classic, The Fountainhead follows Howard Roark as he makes his way in the world, an architect with unyielding integrity, and recounts his passionate love affair with the achingly beautiful Dominique Francon.  Initially, our reader picked up The Fountainhead in the hopes of learning about Ayn Rand and uncovering why her books have remained classics for decades; however, she found she was disappointed by the extreme selfishness of Rand’s protagonists.  Objectivism, which Rand touted, she explained to our fellow readers, appears to involve the pursuit of one’s own happiness regardless of consequences—and many of the characters involved in Rand’s novel appear to make decisions based on this ideal.  She also noted it is full of introspection and individual monologues, giving it the feel of a modernized Russian novel.  “If Tolstoy had lived in America in the 1920s, I believe he would have written this novel,” she said.

Last, Nevermore inspected a brand new book by debut author, Teresa Messineo:  The Fire by Night.  Jo, an Italian-Irish girl from Brooklyn, and Kay, a small-town girl from Pennsylvania, first met in nursing school.  They became fast friends, despite their very different backgrounds, and they quickly grew inseparable—and then the war came.  Now, Jo is caught in war-torn France with six wounded soldiers in her care and German soldiers nipping at her heels; Kay is trapped in a Japanese POW camp in Manila, struggling to protect herself and the patients thrust into her lap.  Our reader was absolutely fascinated by The Fire by Night.  She said Messineo delves deep into history, carefully reconstructing the details of World War II and bringing the conflict to life on the page.  It’s bittersweet and tragic, but it’s very, very good, and our reader can’t wait to hear more from Teresa Messineo.

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Reviewed by Ambrea

Elsa is seven years old; her grandmother is seventy-seven.  Elsa is different from most kids—intelligent and bright and socially awkward, she’s intimidating to most kids her age; her grandmother is crazy, as she describes, “standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy.”  But they’re the best of friends.  Each night, Elsa and her grandmother travel to the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, a place of stories and fairy tales and strange creatures where no one is normal and everything is different.

However, when Elsa’s grandmother dies, she leaves behind a series of letters—a string of apologies to deliver to those she has slighted over the years—and Elsa is tasked with delivering them.  Her grandmother’s letters eventually lead her throughout her apartment building.  She meets the wurse, a monstrous creature with a fondness for chocolate and cookies and milk; she encounters The Monster, the rather terrifying stranger who lives on the next floor; and she makes the acquaintance of other misfits whom her grandmother helped, which takes her on an adventure both unexpected and grand.

I loved reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman.  Although it took me a little time to sink into the story, especially when so many characters became involved, I absolutely loved Backman’s novel.  I enjoyed the authentic—sometimes explosive, sometimes heartbreaking, but always genuine—emotions in this book; I enjoyed the sheer oddity of it; I enjoyed the threads of danger and adventure woven into the story.  Moreover, I enjoyed Backman’s storytelling, recounting the tales of Wolfheart and the Wurse and all the fairy tales of Miamas.  I even enjoyed Britt Marie (and that’s saying something).

Overall, I loved reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  I especially liked the characters:  they’re so different.  Each has his or her own history that changes them, makes them a unique personality—and yet they’re all tied together by the thread of Elsa’s grandmother.  She brings them together in an oddball quest to deliver letters, to apologize for the wrongs in her life and rectify the things she can no longer fix.

But Elsa, I think, was my favorite.  She’s a smart, headstrong little girl.  She’s read the Harry Potter series numerous times, she’s proficient in her grandmother’s “secret language,” and she’s a frequent purveyor of Wikipedia, an avid researcher of the mundane and the obscure.  She’s such a unique personality, I couldn’t help liking her—and, of course, her crazy, paintball-gun-wielding grandmother.  They give the novel a distinctive flavor that makes it one-of-a-kind.  I couldn’t help but fall in love.

Admittedly, I loved the entire thing, even the parts that were difficult to read.

In his novel, Backman sometimes shows the worst side of people:  drugs, alcohol, grief, bullying, social and behavioral problems, and more—so much more that it will break your heart.  He’ll show readers things that are hard to see; however, he’ll balance these things with unexpected humor and insight and heartwarming moments of friendship, compassion, and love.  I would call his novel bittersweet, because it so closely mirrors life.

Readers see the good and the bad, all the difficult sides of human nature, all the struggles that weigh us down on a daily basis, but he always shows the sweeter things in life.  Like best friends and wonderful mothers and good stories and loyalty and, wonder of wonders, laughter.  Sometimes, life isn’t always good, but this book makes you feel like things will get better in the end.  Grief hurts, but friends and family can help bear the burden.