Category Archives: Contemporary

Review: Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

Title: Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson
Translated by Quentin Bates
Dark Iceland Series Book One
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors–accessible only via a small mountain tunnel.

Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik–with a past that he’s unable to leave behind.

When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theater, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.

Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness–blinded by snow, and with a killer on the loose.

Taut and terrifying, Snowblind is a startling debut from the extraordinary new talent Ragnar Jonasson.

Review:

Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson is an atmospheric police procedural set in an isolated small town in Iceland.  This first installment in the Dark Iceland series is a bit of a slow burner, but the characters and the setting make it very easy to savor the unfolding story.

A former philosophy and theology student, twenty-four year old Ari Thór Arason has finally found his niche at the police college in Reykjavík. However, finding employment proves elusive until he is offered a position in Siglufjörður.  After impulsively accepting the job without discussing it first with his longtime girlfriend Kristín who refuses to move with him, Ari Thór sets off for his new home.  With the winter darkness, seemingly unending snow and the isolation quickly becoming claustrophobic for Ari Thór, the sleepy village is soon shocked when beloved author Hrólfur Kristjánsson is found dead at the bottom of a staircase at the local theater. While everyone else is convinced Hrólfur’s fall is a tragic accident, Ari Thór wonders if the death might be the result of foul play.  When Linda Christensen is discovered stabbed and lying in the snow, Ari Thór cannot help but speculate the two incidents might be connected, but  how?

Ari Thór is an interesting young man with a rather complicated past that continues to trouble him.  Moving to the close-knit community of Siglufjörður might prove to be a smart career move in the long run, but in the present, his decision has a detrimental effect on both his relationship and his mental health.  Depressed by Kristín’s less than enthusiastic reaction and feeling claustrophobic by the isolation, darkness and unrelenting snowfall,  Ari Thór is already second-guessing accepting the job when Hrólfur’s body is discovered.

Enthusiastic about his first “real” case,  Ari Thór views the death as suspicious but police chief Tómas is ready to label it as an accident after a cursory investigation.  While he respects his boss’s opinion, Ari Thór  cannot help probing a little deeper into the circumstances surrounding Hrólfur’s fall.  However, in a town as small as Siglufjörður, it does not take long for rumors to begin circulating that Hrólfur might have been murdered and Tómas is none too pleased that Ari Thór is asking questions without permission.  Tómas is equally vexed when someone begins leaking details of the case to a newspaper reporter.  After Linda’s body is found, Tómas,  Ari Thór and veteran investigator Hlynur are definitely under pressure to find answers.  Ari Thór might not be an experienced policeman, but he has good instincts that help him piece together the various clues.

While initially a little slow paced, Snowblind is a compelling mystery with a cast of intriguing characters. The isolation, unrelenting snow and dark winter days underscore Ari Thór’s deepening depression and feelings of oppression.  The leisurely unveiling of the two cases provides plenty of time for Ragnar Jónasson to fully flesh out the various characters which allows readers to become fully acquainted with them on a much more personal level.  An outstanding beginning to the Dark Iceland series that will leave fans of the genre impatiently awaiting the next release.

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Filed under Contemporary, Dark Iceland Series, Minotaur Books, Mystery, Ragnar Jónasson, Rated B, Review, Snowblind

Review: Blackwell by Alexandrea Weis with Lucas Astor

Title: Blackwell by Alexandrea Weis with Lucas Astor
Publisher: Vesuvian Books
Genre: Historical, Paranormal/Supernatural, Thriller
Length: 300 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Hell has a new master

In the late 1800s, handsome, wealthy New Englander, Magnus Blackwell, is the envy of all.

When Magnus meets Jacob O’Conner—a Harvard student from the working class—an unlikely friendship is forged. But their close bond is soon challenged by a captivating woman; a woman Magnus wants, but Jacob gets.

Devastated, Magnus seeks solace in a trip to New Orleans. After a chance meeting with Oscar Wilde, he becomes immersed in a world of depravity and brutality, inevitably becoming the inspiration for Dorian Gray. Armed with the forbidden magic of voodoo, he sets his sights on winning back the woman Jacob stole from him.

Amid the trappings of Victorian society, two men, bent on revenge, will lay the foundation for a curse that will forever alter their destinies.

Review:

Blackwell by Alexandrea Weis with Lucas Astor is a dark historical thriller with slight paranormal elements.

Magnus Blackwell and Jacob O’Connor’s friendship begins when they are both architectural students at Harvard.  Magnus, who is from a wealthy family, is a little jaded, spoiled and quite popular with both his classmates and the ladies.  Jacob is an orphan who is attending Harvard on scholarship and feels out of place amongst his fellow students.  Magnus is a bit broody and angry with a sense of entitlement that seems to be an all common trait in his privileged world.  Jacob is much more kind-hearted than Magnus and he finds it easy to forgive his friend’s boorish behavior.

Despite the two men’s differences, their friendship flourishes until Magnus sets his sights on Frances McGee. Trouble ensues when Frances rejects Blackwell and later marries Jacob. Overrun with jealousy, Magnus goes on vacation in New Orleans where Oscar Wilde introduces him to Madame Simone Glapion, a brothel proprietress and voodoo high priestess. Glapion quickly senses the evil lurking inside Blackwell and their acquaintance culminates with a stunning altercation that sets Magnus on an increasingly dark and twisted path.

While Blackwell is sinking deeper and deeper into depravity, Jacob and Frances begin married life together.  Although deliriously happy, their life is marred by financial struggles as Jacob tries to secure a well paying job as an architect.  So when Magnus returns from New Orleans and offers him a job renovating his family home, Jacob quickly accepts the position.  He and Frances live on Blackwell’s estate where Magnus proves to be a difficult client to please. Frances grows increasingly uneasy with their situation but with few employment prospects on the horizon, Jacob ignores his reservations while trying to reassure his wife all is well.  Unbeknownst to Jacob and Frances, Blackwell’s bitterness and jealousy over losing Frances to Jacob is about to spill over in a shocking act that will have unintended consequences for both men.

Featuring a storyline that is rife with elements of jealousy, vengeance and revenge, Blackwell by Alexandrea Weis with Lucas Astor is an intriguing story with several unexpected twists and turns.  The sweet romance between Frances and Jacob is a stark contrast to Blackwell’s sexually explicit exploits with prostitutes and servants.  The novel’s conclusion is quite dramatic and completely unexpected.  A fast-paced historical novel with a supernatural twist that fans of the genre will enjoy.

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Filed under Alexandrea Weis, Blackwell, Contemporary, Historical, Lucas Astor, Paranormal, Rated B, Review, Supernatural Elements, Thriller, Vesuvian Books

Review: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Title: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Penguin’s First to Read Program

Summary:

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Review:

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is an engrossing novel that explores the deep bond of friendship between two women who are also business partners.

Throughout her childhood, Sharon Kisses lost herself in cartoons in an effort to keep loneliness at bay while dreaming of escaping her small Kentucky town.  Winning a scholarship to a prestigious college in Upper New York is her ticket to freedom and while she still feels like an outsider, she is enjoying the opportunity to hone her artistic skills.  Striking up an unlikely friendship with vibrant and gregarious Mel Vaught is a huge turning point in her life and following college, the two women become business partners.  It takes ten years of hard work, but they are finally attaining professional success after their first full-length animated  project, based on Mel’s childhood, garners them a prestigious grant for their next as yet undetermined project.  As Mel begins to self-destruct during a publicity tour, Sharon experiences self-doubt about her role in their partnership.  Dual tragedies strike and the women’s friendship is tested as they begin working on their next project.

Both Mel and Sharon carry the scars from their dysfunctional childhoods but the two women cannot be more different.  Mel is the outgoing, brash life of the party while Sharon is quiet and rather introspective.  Neither have quite come to terms with the damage wrought by their respective pasts but they deal with their emotional pain in very different ways.  Mel drinks heavily and self-medicates with a number of legal and illegal substances.  Sharon is the responsible one who tries to reel in her out of control friend with varying degrees of success. She is also a bit of a follower who often finds herself swept up into Mel’s craziness.

In the aftermath of a health crisis, Mel prods Sharon into confronting the demons of her past.  During their visit to Kentucky, Mel persuades her friend to renew her acquaintance with her childhood friend, Teddy Caudill. Teddy abruptly moved away when they were still children, but a traumatic incident involving him still haunts Sharon. After their reunion, Sharon and Teddy unexpectedly fall in love but will their relationship survive after he uncovers the truth about Sharon and Mel’s current project?

Written in first person from Sharon’s perspective, The Animators is a spellbinding exploration of friendship and professional collaboration between two damaged but very appealing characters. Although portions of the story are easy to predict, the overall storyline is refreshingly unique and quite engaging. This outstanding debut by Kayla Rae Whitaker  is an emotional story of friendship that will linger in readers’ hearts long after the last page is turned.

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Filed under Contemporary, Kayla Rae Whitaker, Literary Fiction, Random House, Rated B+, Review, The Animators

Review: Right Behind You by Lisa Jackson

Title: Right Behind You by Lisa Jackson
Quincy & Rainie Series Book Seven
Publisher: Dutton
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery, Suspense
Length: 400 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Penguin’s First to Read Program

Summary:

Lisa Gardner’s next thriller following her runaway New York Times bestseller Find Her takes her wildly popular brand of suspense to new heights.

Is he a hero?

Eight years ago, Sharlah May Nash’s older brother beat their drunken father to death with a baseball bat in order to save both of their lives. Now thirteen years old, Sharlah has finally moved on. About to be adopted by retired FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and his partner, Rainie Conner, Sharlah loves one thing best about her new family: They are all experts on monsters.

Is he a killer?

Then the call comes in. A double murder at a local gas station, followed by reports of an armed suspect shooting his way through the wilds of Oregon. As Quincy and Rainie race to assist, they are forced to confront mounting evidence: The shooter may very well be Sharlah’s older brother, Telly Ray Nash, and it appears his killing spree has only just begun.

All she knows for sure: He’s back.

As the clock winds down on a massive hunt for Telly, Quincy and Rainie must answer two critical questions: Why after eight years has this young man started killing again? And what does this mean for Sharlah? Once upon a time, Sharlah’s big brother saved her life. Now, she has two questions of her own: Is her brother a hero or a killer? And how much will it cost her new family before they learn the final, shattering truth? Because as Sharlah knows all too well, the biggest danger is the one standing right behind you.

Review:

Right Behind You by Lisa Jackson is an enthralling mystery about a police hunt for a suspected spree killer. Although this latest release is the seventh installment in the Quincy & Rainie series, it can be read as a standalone.

Following the discovery of two murder victims at a local convenience store/gas station, Sheriff Shelly Atkins calls on retired FBI Profiler Pierce Quincy to help put together a profile of the suspected killer.  Quincy is stunned to learn the identity of the suspect is his soon to adopted foster daughter Sharlah’s seventeen year old brother Telly Ray Nash.  After learning that Telly’s foster parents, Frank and Sandra Duvall, have also been murdered,  Quincy fears Sharlah might become his next victim.  With a massive manhunt for  Telly underway, Quincy, Rainie and Sheriff Atkins try to piece together a possible motive  for Telly’s apparent rampage.  Why would Telly want to murder his foster parents?  What reason could he have for gunning down two apparent strangers?  And the biggest question of all: can they capture Telly before he harms Sharlah?

Eight years earlier, Telly killed his drunk and abusive father during a violent attack in which both Telly and Sharlah feared for their lives.  With their mother also dead, Telly and Sharlah became wards of the state and they were sent to live with different foster families.  Now, after bouncing from one bad home to another, both Sharlah and Telly are living with good families who care about them.  Although she has been unable to verbalize her feelings, Sharlah is happy that Quincy and Rainie are adopting her. Meanwhile, Telly is less than a year away from aging out of the foster system but Frank and Sandra are making progress in preparing him for this next stage of his life. So everyone wants to know: what precipitated Telly’s suspected killing spree?  And after discovering evidence that he has apparently been stalking Sharlah, what does he plan to do to his sister?  There are no clear cut answers to any of the investigators’ questions and they are frantic to capture Telly before he kills again.

Initially, Sheriff Atkins and Quincy’s suspect that Telly’s killing spree has something to do with his and Sharlah’s past.  However, the deeper they dig into Telly’s life with the Duvall’s the less certain they are that his troubled childhood has anything to do with  the current crimes.  A few incongruous details turn the investigation in a completely new direction but Telly remains the focus of their investigation.  As the manhunt for Telly continues, will newly discovered information prove he is innocent?

With fiendishly clever twists and turns,  Right Behind You is a spellbinding police procedural that fans of the genre are going to absolutely LOVE.  The storyline is intriguing with plenty of suspense as the chapters alternate between different perspectives including enlightening chapters from both Telly and Sharlah’s points of view.  The investigation moves at a fever pitch as Sheriff Atkins and Quincy feverishly follow every new lead while at the same time, the manhunt for Telly adds increased urgency to the storyline.  Lisa Jackson brings the novel to a very dramatic and quite shocking conclusion with a plot twist that is impossible to predict. An absolutely outstanding mystery that I highly recommend to old and new fans of  the Quincy & Rainie series.

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Filed under Contemporary, Dutton, Lisa Jackson, Mystery, Quincy & Rainie Series, Rated B+, Review, Right Behind You, suspense

Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Title: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 288 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

An unforgettable cast of characters is unleashed into a realm known for its cruelty—the American high school—in this captivating debut novel.

The wealthy enclaves north of San Francisco are not the paradise they appear to be, and nobody knows this better than the students of a local high school. Despite being raised with all the opportunities money can buy, these vulnerable kids are navigating a treacherous adolescence in which every action, every rumor, every feeling, is potentially postable, shareable, viral.

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s kaleidoscopic narrative exposes at every turn the real human beings beneath the high school stereotypes. Abigail Cress is ticking off the boxes toward the Ivy League when she makes the first impulsive decision of her life: entering into an inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Dave Chu, who knows himself at heart to be a typical B student, takes desperate measures to live up to his parents’ crushing expectations. Emma Fleed, a gifted dancer, balances rigorous rehearsals with wild weekends. Damon Flintov returns from a stint at rehab looking to prove that he’s not an irredeemable screwup. And Calista Broderick, once part of the popular crowd, chooses, for reasons of her own, to become a hippie outcast.

Into this complicated web, an idealistic young English teacher arrives from a poorer, scruffier part of California. Molly Nicoll strives to connect with her students—without understanding the middle school tragedy that played out online and has continued to reverberate in different ways for all of them.

Written with the rare talent capable of turning teenage drama into urgent, adult fiction, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with sorrow, passion, and humanity.

Review:

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson is a bleak portrait of a privileged group of teens and a first year teacher.

Mill Valley is an upscale small town that appears to be quite tranquil.  Yet under the idyllic veneer simmers a seething cauldron of dysfunction for the children of wealthy parents.  Beginning with an eighth grade bullying incident that ends in tragedy, the story follows a group of teens who seemingly have everything going for them.  Yet, after their participation in the on line bullying of their classmate, their lives go down very dark and depressing paths.

Fast forward to the eleventh grade and several of the friends have gone their separate ways. Yet there is a commonality in their behavior as they continue to make one bad decision after another. The teenagers’ parents seem to make guest appearances in their children’s lives and none of them are aware of what their kids are up to on line or in real life. The few parents who do take an interest in their children’s futures are overbearing with unrealistically high expectations that their kids have no chance of fulfilling.

The overall feel of the novel is that of a collection of short stories since readers only get one chapter from each participants point of view.  These chapters are long and somewhat rambling peeks inside their troubled lives.  New teacher Molly Nicholl is the only character who narrates more than one chapter and it is quite obvious from the outset she is a little too naive and idealistic to handle her self-destructive students. Like the teenagers she is teaching, Molly does not make the wisest choices as she becomes overly involved in her students’ lives.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a well-written debut novel with a somewhat dark storyline. Lindsey Lee Johnson offers a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of the decisions made by both teenagers and adults.

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Filed under Contemporary, Lindsey Lee Johnson, Literary Fiction, Random House, Rated C, Review, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Review: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis

Title: Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery
Length: 400 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

The perfect family. The perfect house. The perfect life. All gone now.

What could cause a man, when all the stars of fortune are shining upon him, to suddenly snap and destroy everything he has built? This is the question that haunts Sergeant Ryan DeMarco after the wife and children of beloved college professor and bestselling author Thomas Huston are found slaughtered in their home. Huston himself has disappeared and so is immediately cast as the prime suspect.

DeMarco knows—or thinks he knows—that Huston couldn’t have been capable of murdering his family. But if Huston is innocent, why is he on the run? And does the half-finished manuscript he left behind contain clues to the mystery of his family’s killer?

A masterful new thriller by acclaimed author Randall Silvis, Two Days Gone is a taut, suspenseful story that will will break your heart as much as it will haunt your dreams.

Review:

Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis is a dark mystery about the murder of a beloved college professor’s family.

Pennsylvania State Police Sergeant Ryan DeMarco might be broken and troubled but he has not lost any of the instincts that make him an outstanding policeman.  His current case investigating the horrific murders of Thomas Huston’s wife and three children hits a little too close to home but he mostly succeeds at keeping his personal feelings at bay.  He is having a difficult time believing Thomas is responsible for the murders, but he tries not to let his friendship with the professor (and best-selling author) cloud his judgment.  Despite his boss’s doubts about letting him remain on the case, DeMarco remains committed to uncovering the truth about who murdered Huston’s family.

Ryan finds his most promising lead after interviewing Huston’s student Nathan Briessen who is also an aspiring author.  Nathan provides valuable insight into Thomas’s writing process that takes DeMarco to his first solid lead in the case.  Trying to piece together the professor’s whereabouts in the weeks prior to the murders takes Ryan down an unexpected path and leaves him wondering if Thomas truly is the devoted family man everyone believes him to be.  Was there more to Thomas’s relationships with the people he was interviewing than research for characters in his next novel?

Closer to home, DeMarco quickly learns the academic world is full of political maneuvering and infighting. Are professional jealousy and denied tenure motives for murder? Were Thomas’s colleague’s truly happy for his success as an author?  Or were they secretly seething with envy for his commercial success? DeMarco’s discoveries about Thomas’s interactions with his students reinforces every accolade for the well-liked professor but was there something darker lurking beneath the surface?  Could one of his students be responsible for the murders?

The chapters written from Ryan’s point of view follow the investigation and to some extent, provide valuable insight into where his life went so tragically wrong.  DeMarco remains trapped in an unhealthy relationship with  his estranged wife.  He drinks too much, sleeps too little and devotes too much of his time to his career.  Ryan appears to have one healthy relationship that he seems determined to destroy, but working on the Huston case eventually serves as a turning point for him to deal with the dysfunction in his life.

The chapters written from Thomas’s perspective appear to be designed to keep the reader guessing whether or not he was involved with his family’s deaths.  These chapters are often disjointed and somewhat rambling interruptions that disrupt the overall flow of the story and rarely add anything useful to the storyline.

Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis is an intriguing police procedural that fans of the genre are sure to enjoy. The mystery aspect of the storyline is very well written and the various twists and turns make it difficult to figure out whodunit and why.  Ryan DMarco is a compelling character but some of his actions during the investigation are a little far-fetched.  The investigation ends with a final plot twist that is impossible to predict and neatly wraps all of the loose ends.  All in all, a dark, atmospheric mystery with a surprisingly upbeat conclusion.

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Filed under Contemporary, Mystery, Randall Silvis, Rated B, Review, Sourcebooks Landmark, Two Days Gone