Vox by Christina Dalcher (2018)

vox

In this chilling dystopia, women have become prisoners under the complete control of the all white, male, conservative Christian government. During the years before the story begins, women’s immoralities have been found to be the cause of all societal ills. To counteract the decline of “purity” in American culture, limits have been put on women. First they rights to control their own medical care is rescinded; then their right to control their money; then their right to work, and finally their right to speak or read words of any kind. They are be to silent, humble, pure, and live in service to their husbands, sons, God, and government. Those who refuse are sent to work camps…or worse.

Once a prominent academic researcher, now Dr. Jean McClellan is living a rage-filled existence, albeit a silent one. Confined to her home, she is under surveillance around the clock by electronics and the men in her community, lest she forget her place and speak or read a single word. With no work allowed, all forms of non-church-approved entertainment banned, and no where to travel too, she finds herself losing her mind.

As if the torture of her imprisonment were not maddening enough, she must also watch her young daughter’s life be stripped of freedom and given over to the church. But not her three sons, though; being born male has granted them the right to read, learn, speak, and come and go as they please. Her disgust with the inequities within her own household, as well as across the country, is growing exponentially each day.

Then, the government comes calling for Dr. McClellan. Not to imprison her (not yet, anyway) but to demand the she resume her medical research to help the president heal his brother. After she initially refuses to help the man who has made being a woman in America a crime, she is tortured into agreeing. Before resuming her work, she demands that the ban on speaking and reading be lifted from her and her daughter.

Her time is short, Jean knows, to be able to read, speak, and work. Now she needs to figure out how she can escape before the government figures out what she’s planning.

Throughout the reading, I was struck by the similarities this novel has with Margaret Atwood science-fiction masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale: the traitorous women who enable their own imprisonment, the once well-meaning men who sympathize but do nothing else, the constant surveillance and the demand for purity among women. A great story that was unsettling and infuriating, in part because of how easily this story of science fiction could become a reality given today’s political climate.

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Under My Skin by Lisa Unger (2018)

Finding Lisa Unger’s books last spring was a delightful surprise: here was an author whom I had never read, writing thrilling and complex books, and who had a stack of older novels I could devour. A book-lovers dream! Under My Skin is her latest novel, and while it departs from the spooky, magical-realism of some of her recent novels, it is still a great read.

One morning almost a year ago, Poppy Lang, awoke to find her husband gone from their bed and police detectives in her lobby, there to tell her that he had been mugged and murdered in the park during a jog. Days later, Poppy disappears for almost a week and returns with no memories what-so-ever of the time she has been gone, and no memories of the weeks leading up to her husband’s death.

The twelve months that follow are terrifying and disjointed: consumed with grief, her mind distorted by pills and booze, swaddled by friends and family trying to cushion the blow, wracked with fear and not knowing why. Finally, there is a glimmer of…something. Hope? Memory? Healing?

Poppy and her therapist discuss her emergence from the cocoon that has been her life for the past year. She starts to remember tiny details, things she has forgotten, pieces of information that had been missing until now. A face, a name, the logo of a bar, a fight, a conversation overheard. Problem is, these bits of information are surfacing in nightmares and hallucinations; out of order and not always accurate. Some of it is real, Poppy knows, but which parts she is still unsure.

“These events might seem like hallucinations, but they’re more like dreams. The state is called hypnagogia, the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness or between wakefulness and sleep. The sensations are there — be they visual, olfactory, auditory — and are often quite vivid.” 156

Sick to death of not fully being present in her life and finally ready to face the facts of her husband’s murder, whether or not its causes her to spiral out of control again, Poppy ditches the pills and alcohol and starts forcing herself to remember. The well-meaning (and down-right controlling) people in her life attempt to stop her, convinced she will have another breakdown. Without their support, Poppy must strike out on her own, take risks and “invite darkness” into her life to get the information she needs.

What follows is a thrilling, if chaotic, descent into Poppy psyche. She is forced to really examine her marriage in those final months, and collect clues — however scant– that might lead her to places or people that will spark real memories. The more of herself she regains, the more the people around her grow nervous: some fearing she will find out things about her husband best left buried with him; some fearing she will find out who played a role in his death.

“Marriage is a mosaic, comprised of pieces–some broken and jagged, some shiny, some dull, some golden. The pieces don’t matter as much as the whole picture of your life together.” 191

While not as dark and terrifying as some of her other books, Under My Skin was a well-paced thriller with a heroine who was easy to route for getting better and getting answers. Great reading for Halloween!

Leverage In Death by JD Robb (2018)

Book #47, Eve Dallas In Death Series (Several of which are reviewed in this site, search tag “Nora Roberts” to see them all.)

leverage in death

When a bomb is detonated during a high-stakes business meeting, Eve Dallas and her partner Peabody respond, assuming that a disgruntled and vengeful employee has targeted his bosses. The explosion killed twelve, injured many others, and appeared to have been work of a company VP. A closer look into the murder leads the two detectives to the suspect’s home, where his wife and daughter have been kept captive for days. These two witnesses tell a much different story from the one the police assumed to be the case.

This was not the work of a man bent on killing his co-workers, but rather a man who was himself a victim. He exploded the bomb only after being forced to watch his beloved wife and daughter beaten for days on end until he had agreed to carry out the bombing. The wife and daughter, along with some bombing survivors, give Eve and Peabody key pieces of information that help the two women begin to see the bigger picture.

Two men targeted the victims and used the husband to blow up the office a valuable company, kill their CEOs and then — in the chaos that followed — buy up valuable stock and make millions when the stock prices recovered. The detectives are making slow progress on the case when, just days later, another almost identical bombing occurs.

The second bombing targeted an up-and-coming artist and his art work, killing six more people and (it is soon learned) causing the value of his remaining art pieces to skyrocket in value.

Now it is clear that the two masterminds of the bombings are ruthless and greedy terrorists willing to kill as many people as they like, all while cashing in on illegal gambling schemes. Or that is their plan anyway, but Eve Dallas and her team are not going to stop until the men are in jail and their money seized.

The Book of M by Peng Shepard (2018)

“I understood then how the Forgetting works. Why sometimes we shadowless simply don’t remember anymore and why other times something changes: there’s a difference between when the mind forgets and the heart does. The memory means more, the more it’s worth to you — and to who you are. The heart has a harder time letting go. But what happens when you refuse to let go of a delicate thing as it’s being pulled away from you? It stretches. Then it tears.” 160

When it happened, the day that changed the world forever was misunderstood and celebrated. A Indian man, the breathless reports around the world stated, had lost his shadow and it seemed a scientific anomaly. Soon, it become clear that that was not all he lost: first his shadow, then his memory, then his humanity.

When more people in rural India also lose their shadows, the tone begins to shift. No longer seen as a harmless one-off incident; governments around the globe began taking extreme measures to keep what they wrongly thought was a pandemic from spreading. However, their is no stopping the shadowless “condition” and it begins to spread around the globe. The shadowless lose their memories — in what is called The Forgetting — slowly over the days after their shadows disappear and by the time they forget who their are and how to care for themselves, many have grown violent and aggressive.

By the time our story starts, several years have past and the vast majority of the world is dead. Power grids have failed, food is scarce, and the few remaining “shadowed” people have formed militant groups to stay alive. Enter our four narrators, Ory, Max, Naz, and a man only known as “the amnesiac.” Through their words, we will hear of the spread of the outbreak, the dissent into chaos that followed, and how the survivors are fighting to stay alive.

Ory and Max, a married man and wife, have survived, alone in a wilderness hotel for years, but now food is running out and Max has lost her shadow. Desperate not to lose his wife, Ory coaches Max on ways to remember herself and their marriage. But terrified she will harm him, Max leaves the hotel with plans to spend the last of her days far from her beloved.

Max’s journey links her to other shadowless who are still alive, and as a group they try to keep the shadowed from killing them before they forget too much. While they still can, they are fleeing toward New Orleans, where it is rumored a safe haven (and a cure?) has formed.

Ory takes off after Max, but finds his own life in danger again and again. He is attacked by shadowless too far gone to understand and shadowed fearing he will take their food or weapons. He shows us the world of the survivors and the lengths they have gone to stay alive. Here he meets Naz, whose own desperate journey to safety fills in more blanks for readers. The two narrators join a 40-person band of survivors who must decide whether to stay and fight for their fortress even those supplies are running out or follow the others fleeing to New Orleans.

Finally, there is the most mysterious of all of the characters, The Amnesiac. A man whose memory of his own personal past is gone completely, but he is able to remember other important things that keep him alive (to eat, for example.) He may hold the key to stopping or reversing the outbreak without even knowing it.

Overall, The Book of M is a chilling dystopia about a world that has forgotten how to be human. The author explores the terrifying reality in which are loved ones are stolen from us, piece by piece, and how losing memories — for some — become their complete undoing and for others, what they remember becomes their salvation.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)

Book #4 in the Cormoran Strike Series (Reviews here for Book #1 https://wp.me/p6N6mT-Xx and #3 https://wp.me/p6N6mT-1l )

Note: While I try very, very hard not to give spoilers about the other books in this series in this post, I was unable to 100% succeeded. If you have not read the previous three books, please go back and do so, and then proceed. They are absolutely worth it, being four of the best mystery fiction books to have been written in the past decade.

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At last, Robin Ellacort and Cormoran Strike are back for their fourth adventure in Lethal White. Across the nearly 700-pages of the book, our two private investigators will link several seemingly unconnected events — the murder of a child, a Cabinet Minister being blackmailed, a communist activist/petty criminal’s activities, powerful men sexually harassing young workers, the vicious infighting of a once-wealthy family — in order to solve not only the crimes their clients have tasked them with, but also all of the intertwined mysteries that appear along the way.

This detective work is, of course, complicated and confused by the emotional journey Robin and Strike are on in the wake of the disastrous and violent work required to catch a serial killer in Career of Evil (reviewed https://wp.me/p6N6mT-1l ) That case not only left them both with physical scars, but with mental ones as well, particularly Robin for whom the case forced her to face some of the darkest times of her past. Furthermore, the two had severed their professional relationship and their friendship over disagreements in how to handle the victims in that case. Now the two are delicately rebuilding — not always successfully — their working partnership in the wake of that dramatic ending.

Additionally, the once-close friendship between Robin and Strike has cooled following Robin’s marriage to Matthew Cunliffe. Seeing her new status as married as a potential handicap, Strike has intentionally (without Robin’s knowledge) been manipulating her schedules and duties to keep her from the firm’s more risky cases. The more Strike pulls back, the further cast out Robin feels, increasing her anxiety that she may not be as valuable a partner as she had thought. Given that her work with Strike is among the most valuable aspects of her life, that more he pushes her away, the faster her mental health deteriorates.

Into that mix of emotion and miscommunication, things said and unsaid, come two unconnected visitors: a homeless, schizophrenic young man who insists he has witnessed a murder of the child, and England’s Minister of Culture.

The young man, Billy, tells Strike the details — disjointed and unclear — of witnessing the strangulation and burial of a young girl near his Oxfordshire hometown. Unstable and terrifying, the young man’s call for help in finding the murderer is complicated by his mental state and his subsequent disappearance. Billy flees the office but his story sticks with Strike, who decides to use some of the firm’s new staff to look into the claims made by the young man.

Simultaneously, England’s Minister of Culture calls for a meeting and hires Strike to stop two men who are black-mailing him: one asking for money and and the other calling for his resignation from office. Refusing to tell Robin nor Strike the crimes he is being blackmailed for, the Minister only gives them the names of two men who are after him and asks that the firm unearth enough evidence of blackmailers own misdeeds to quiet them. One man accused of blackmail is the husband of another Minister with a personal vendetta. The other one is none other than the older brother of Billy, the mentally ill visitor Strike has had just a few days earlier.

The circumstances are too linked to be passed off as coincidence and soon the entire firm is engaged in tracking all four men — Billy, the Minister, Billy’s brother Jimmy, and the other politician involved in the blackmail — and gathering evidence of all of their activities.

As the story unfolds, the connections between these four men grow stronger and stranger, their lives overlapping in — at first — unconnected ways. But slowly, slowly a picture emerges of the group, how they fit together, and what crime (or crimes) they are all, individually and together, trying to prevent the world from discovering. Complicating the story are other characters, many of whom have their own agendas for keeping secrets for these four men: some out of love, others out of fear, and still more for whom it is profitable to help hide secrets.

An astonishingly complex web connects all of the people Robin and Strike are investigating, binding the entire group intricately together. Never fear, Galbraith is a deft and skilled writer who leads readers along, making sure the threads of each story remain clear and distinct. He lets us thrill in following our hero and heroine as they solve the mysteries…the ones they are investigating and the ones complicating their friendship.

What can I say? The books in this series are outstanding and crafted to perfection. I have read each of the series previous books several times each, and once my husband finishes Lethal White, I am prepared to begin reading it again.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (2008)

When you are engulfed
After reading David Sedaris’ most recent book, Calypso (reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-35I) earlier in the summer, and then recently listening to the author read the audio-book version of this past weekend, I realize what a fantastic treat it is to read funny stories. There’s something delightful about falling asleep still chuckling over a joke or anecdote. Given that I spend a tremendous amount of time reading dark and twisted thrillers, it’s nice to occasionally contemplate of the lighter side of things.

Telling a series of stories that cover a span of time from his early childhood to present day, Sedaris’s collection in When You Are… focus on the places he has called home and the eclectic people (his family included) who have lived along-side him. One story describes a crumbling Victorian boarding house in North Carolina where he lived with in with several mental patients. Another takes place in an NYC studio that sat across the hall from an abusive elderly woman he, if not befriended than inherited. New York, Chicago, Paris, Normandy, Tokyo; dorm rooms, derelict building, country houses, high-tech apartments: Sedaris’s stories are as unique and wacky as the locations where they take place.

This collection is as side-splitting and as it is enlightening. Sedaris has the unique ability to turn us to find humor in a story about grief, or show kindness and understanding towards the most unlovable. More extraordinarily, he is able to take an outrageous tale (say, an internship at a Corners office) and highlight the ordinary that exists alongside the macabre. He’s a keen observer who sees things that others might miss, or simply dismiss, tiny details that transform a small act into a life-long lesson…albeit some more profound than others. David Sedaris is a true American treasure and his books are an absolute delight.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (2016)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Book #12

glass houses l penny

Armand Gamache returns, no longer Chief Inspector of Homicide the Sûreté du Québec and no longer running the Sûreté du Québec Academy, but now as the head of the entire organization. Gamache and his team have been fighting an uphill battle against the opioid epidemic: more and more drugs are entering Quebec and more and more citizens are dying — and killing one another — over those drugs. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Gamache and his chief inspectors are about to embark on a dangerous and unprecedentedly complex plan to stanch the flow of opioids into their province.

This year Three Pines had a visitor on Halloween, one who — before he left — would stir up feelings of confusion, fear, and anger in the town residents. A man who would be tied to a brutal murder before his visit came to an end… a cobrador. A cobrador is an ancient Spanish tradition, in which a person who has done a terrible misdeed but gone unpunished is haunted day and night by a man in black, a man meant to represent the perpetrator’s conscience.

When the cobrador appears, Armand begins to research the origins of the tradition while also wondering who in the village has a great crime hanging over his or her head that someone feels has gone unpunished. When on the same day, the cobrador disappears and a woman is found dead, Armand opens a formal investigation.

Soon the evidence links the murder of the woman to the very opioid crisis the Sûreté is fighting to stop. In order to bring both the murderer and the drug dealer out in the open, Armand must put his family, his village, and his job all on the line.

Penny has outdone herself with this smart, thrilling novel filled with many unexpected story-telling elements that only add to the suspense. Wonderful!

Repost. Originally posted on January 29 2018.