The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne


Helena had a very unique childhood. Her beginning was dark, born from the forced relationship between her mother and her mother's captor. She grew up in the small cabin in the marsh shared by her mother and father. Helena could never understand the disdain her mother showed her dad. To Helena, her father was everything. He showed her to hunt, track, and fend for herself in the harsh wilderness. He taught her all the skills that he employed in maintaining his own anonymity. It wasn't until she was twelve years old that she saw her father for who is really was.

It has been years since Helena first escaped the clutches of her dad. She's built a new life for herself in the home she once shared with her parents. Helena's husband and two daughters have no knowledge of her unusual past. How could she tell them that her father was the notorious Marsh King? But past and present suddenly collide when a state trooper comes knocking on her door. Her father, who has been locked away since she was twelve, has killed a couple of prison guards and escaped. There's no question in Helena's mind that he'll come for her. She is the only person left alive that he cares for. She may be the only person in the world who can stop him.

The Marsh King's Daughter has been on my radar since its publication. The book has garnered nearly universal acclaim, and I began reading it with high anticipation. Fortunately, the novel lives up to all of the hype. Karen Dionne builds her story in conjunction with a Hans Christian Anderson tale. Each chapter begins with a portion of the fairy tale before proceeding with the main narrative. I'm normally not a fan of the back and forth, but this one works really well. There are many flashbacks to Helena's childhood that read quite similar to the sections about Jack in Emma Donoghue's Room. Dionne takes her character a step further by exploring the effects of a traumatic childhood on her character as an adult. Both the past and present are completely engaging and Dionne keeps the suspense rolling until the very end. Equal parts triller and character study, The Marsh King's Daughter is one of the best books I've read this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 46)

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn


Ever since I read Margaret Atwood's retelling of Shakespeare's Tempest in Hag-Seed, I've been eagerly reading the other books in Hogarth Publishing's ambitious Shakespeare project. The publishing house has tasked well-known authors with writing re-imaginings of some of the thespian's most famous works. While this has been an interesting exercise, the results have been decidedly mixed. Only Atwood has managed to craft a story that truly stands on its own feet. Still, the exercise itself has been enough to keep me reading, and I was happy to receive a copy of the latest novel in the series Dunbar from the publisher.

Dunbar sees author Edward St. Aubyn have his hand at King Lear. Canadian media mogul Henry Dunbar, the King Lear of this iteration, finds himself in a retirement home/sanitarium. His two older daughters conspire against him, taking control of his company and leaving him to rot in the care home. Dunbar may be old, but he's not going to give up his company without a fight. With the assistance of a depressed former thespian Peter, Dunbar escapes his room and begins a quest to take back control from his conniving daughters.

This is the third book in Hogarth's collection that I've read. I find my reaction to Dunbar to be pretty similar to my reaction of Tracy Chevalier's New Boy. While I appreciate many of the moments in the novel, I don't think it really lives up to the standards of the play it is reimagining. To his credit, St. Aubyn gives the novel a kind of political thriller feel with Dunbar working agains forces conspiring against him and his company. Still, the story never seems to exist beyond the point of retelling Shakespeare's narrative. Dunbar can be thrilling and has some surprisingly witty characters, but I'm starting to question the artistic merit of this exercise. Jo Nesbo throws in his take on Macbeth next year, so I'm not ruling out reading more from this collection.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

(2017, 45)

Everything's Jake: A Preview of Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups by Andrew Joyce


Hello, my name is Andrew Joyce. I have a new book out entitled Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups. It came about because my editor hounded me for two years to put all my short stories into one collection. Actually, it was supposed to be a two-volume set because there was so much material. I fended her off for as long as possible. I didn't want to do the work of editing all the stories. There were a lot of them. But she finally wore me down. Instead of tow volumes, I put all the stories into a single book because I wanted to get the whole things over with. I had other books to write!

Bedtime Stories is made up of fiction and nonfiction stories and some of 'em are about my criminal youth. I must tell you, I never though any of these stories would see the light of day. I wrote them for myself and them forgot about them. By the way, there are all sort of genres within its pages, from westerns to detective stories to love stories, an just about anything else that you can imagine.

There are a whole lotta stories in the book---700 pages worth. Enough to keep you reading for the forseeable future.

Anyway, Here's on the the shorter fiction stories from the book.

Everything's Jake

It was early in the morning when the man rode into town from the east, the sun at his back, his long shadow before him. The street was deserted except for an old mongrel dog sniffing its way home after a long night’s prowl.
He proceeded on the main thoroughfare—the town’s only thoroughfare—until he came abreast of the Blue Moon Café with its “WE NEVER CLOSE” sign hanging from the ramada. Spurring his horse over to the hitching post outside the café, he dismounted and entered the establishment.
At that time in the morning, the chairs were on the tables, and the only occupants were a boy sweeping the floor and a disheveled, overweight man behind the bar wiping a glass with a dirty rag. The barkeep watched the stranger approach.
“How ’bout some whiskey?” said the stranger.
When the barman was slow in responding, the man grabbed his collar, pulled him down until he was bent over the bar and their eyes were staring into each other’s.
“I said whiskey,” growled the stranger.
“Yes sir, right away,” was the barkeep’s quick response.
When released, with a shaking hand he placed the glass he had been wiping on the bar, grabbed a bottle from beneath the counter, and poured a liberal amount of an amber liquid into it.
As he started to re-cork the bottle, he was told to leave it.
“Yes sir.”
Turning his back to the bar and placing his elbows thereon, he called to the youth doing the sweeping.
“Hey you, boy, come over here.”
Placing his broom against the nearest table, the boy did as he was bid.
“You got a name, son?”
“Yes sir. It’s Billy.”
“Well, Billy, do you know a man by the name of Jake Tapper?”
“Yes sir.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“Yes sir.”
Reaching into his vest pocket, the man withdrew a silver dollar and flicked it in the boy’s direction. “You go tell Jake that Mac’s in town.”
• • • • •
Jake lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. It was much too early to be awake, but since she left, he’d found it hard to sleep. It had been a heady eight months. He had never loved a woman as he had loved Jeanie. Sure, it was taking a chance messing with Mac Conway’s woman, but it had been worth it. Now that she had run off with that piano player from the Blue Moon, he thought he’d just stop running from Mac. Might as well get it over with, thought Jake.
Then there was a knock at his door. “Yes, who is it?”
“It’s me, Mister Tapper. Billy Doyle.”
“Whatcha want, Billy?”
“A man down to the Blue Moon told me to tell you that Mac is in town. I think he wants to talk to you.”
“Alright, Billy. You tell him I’ll be right there.”
Jake packed his few belongings and left the room. Instead of going to the Blue Moon, he went to the livery stable and saddled his horse. Then he mounted and headed out of town as fast as the beast could carry him.
It is one thing to think brave thoughts in the seclusion of your room, but it’s another thing to face Mac Conway in a saloon. Hell, it ain’t healthy to face off with Mac anywhere. Now that Jeanie’s gone, there’s no reason to git myself killed.
The next day Mac caught up with Jake, and then went looking for Jeanie.

To purchase a copy of Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups, visit Amazon and Andrew's website. 

Deep Freeze by John Sandford

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"Same old Flowers shit. You gotta ride with it."

For years, my favorite literary crime hero was James Patterson's Alex Cross. While I still faithfully read the Cross series, John Sandford's Virgil Flowers has recently ascended to the top spot. There's something about his eccentric investigative antics and never wavering moral compass that makes Flowers a must read. Like any long-running series, Virgil Flowers has had his highs and lows. The last two novels, both focusing largely on finding missing animals, have been true to form. Beyond his usual case studies, Flowers was allowed to truly evolve as a character in new and exciting ways. With Deep Freeze, the tenth installment in this series, John Sandford attempts to take his character to new heights by returning to a familiar setting.

The rough and tumble lady's man Virgil Flowers has been steadily dating his girlfriend Frankie for the last several books. Seeing the way Frankie interacts with her sons has started to cause Virgil think about potentially being a father one day, a role the three time divorcee never imagined he would even consider. The couple's vacation is cut short when Virgil is called by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to travel to Trippton, Minnesota. Virgil has a troubled history with the small town. The last time he was there, he encountered a dog smuggling ring and a corrupt and murderous school board.

This trip sees Virgil investigating the murder of a local banker who was pulled from a frozen river by a local fisherman. She was last seen alive at her home where she hosted a meeting of several other townspeople. They were gathered to plan their 20th high school reunion. As Virgil begins to interview the attendees of that meeting, he begins to see that each of these people may have had some incentive to murder the victim. What is it with this small town?!

As if things weren't already complicated enough, Virgil also receives a request directly from the governor's office. Mattel, maker of Barbie, has commissioned a lawyer from LA to present a cease and desist to a local woman who has been buying, altering, and reselling the dolls. She adds voice boxes to the dolls that cause them to spew suggestive and highly off-brand sounds that Mattel is eager to see stop. The problem is, the this seemingly insignificant operation puts food on the table to many struggling families within the Trippton community. Citizens are less than eager to assist in this particular investigation.

In this tenth novel in the Virgil Flower series, John Sandford continues to develop his character in ways that make this long-running series seem as fresh as ever. Virgil seems to be more calculated in his approach to investigation and takes less risks than he did in earlier novels. This can probably attributed to his relationship with Frankie. There's a couple close calls in this book that have him pleading with police to not inform Frankie of what happened. His concern for her well-being has definitely shifted his actions. Still, he continues to have the quick wit and keen ability to read between the lines of the people he interviews. I always marvel at Sandfords ability to reveal a killer from the start of a book and still hold my attention and create suspense out of an investigation that I know the answer to. Deep Freeze is no different. It is the perfect display of Sandford's writing prowess and the wonderful character he has created. Bring on the next Virgil Flowers adventure!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 44)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett


Mental illness can be a difficult topic to discuss. In his novel Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett attempts to grapple with the subject. He tells the story of a family who deals with the mental illness of their patriarch early on. When Margaret made the decision to marry John, she was aware of his depression. The novel follows the effects of John's struggles with depression and the way those difficulties impact his entire family.

Haslett provides insight into each member of the family's unique reaction to mental illness by having each chapter alternate perspective to that of a different character. This approach can be illuminating at times while creating a distance between reader and character at others. I found the chapters about the mother and sisters to be particularly effective. They attempt to create some kind of normalcy within a family that is riddled with the uncertainty that mental illness can bring.

Where the novel lost me was in the chapters of one brother in particular, Michael. Like his father, Michael suffers from mental illness that makes his chapters nearly impossible to comprehend. He has a particular obsession with music that was endearing at first. It was a way to form some kind of connection. Unfortunately, he seems to deteriorate over time, making his chapters more and more confusing and hard to connect with.

While I think this is an intentional tool for Haslett to demonstrate the troubled mind of a man with severe mental illness, it makes for a book that is often difficult to follow. I have a very mixed reaction to this book because of that. On the one hand, I appreciate how Haslett uses Michael to help the reader understand the other family member's challenge of dealing with a loved one with mental illness. On the other hand, these portions were so uncomfortable to read that I nearly stopped reading the book all together. Imagine Me Gone is as brilliantly conceived as it is frustrating to digest. I can appreciate why the book has been so acclaimed, but I really struggled to connect with it.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 43)

Friday Flicks: American Assassin

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"You go down out there, you're a ghost. There's nobody, nobody coming back for you."

A couple months ago, I read American Assassin by the late author Vince Flynn. The origin story for his hero Mitch Rapp provided some solid back story to the CIA operative. Hollywood has been trying to bring the hero to the screen for years. By adapting this prequel novel and casting young Dylan O'Brien of Maze Runner fame as Rapp, filmmakers have set up this movie to serve as the first in a planned franchise based upon Flynn's novels.

The film opens with the gruesome scene of Mitch witnessing his fiance being murdered in cold blood during a terrorist attack on a beach. Driven by grief and an unyielding thirst for revenge, Rapp begins the process of infiltrating the terrorist group responsible for the attack. As a lone civilian in contact with some of the world's most wanted terrorists, he quickly catches the attention of the CIA. Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) takes a particular interest in Rapp. His personal drive, physical strength, and discreet investigative prowess could make him an ideal candidate for the agency's top secret Orion group.

Kennedy intervenes in Rapp's crazed mission to infiltrate the terrorist group and whisks him off to a remote cabin in the woods for training. Orion's operatives are trained and managed by Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Hurley instantly dislikes Rapp and argues that he lacks both the experience and mental fortitude to join the team. Soon the CIA learns that an American born terrorist "Ghost" is planning to construct a nuclear weapon, Rapp and Hurley are forced to put their differences aside for the good of the country.

I have a mixed reaction to this film. Much of the action and acting comes off as very "by the numbers". It is easy to see where the story is going, and the movie offers little in terms of political commentary or innovation. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy myself. Michael Keaton shines as the ornery Hurley, reveling in every scene he's given. The arc of Rapp's character is much more developed and believable than it was in the novel, offering a true emotional payoff. O'Brien has the potential to grow into the role if another movie is made. A tease at the end of the film offers a tantalizing taste of things to come. While it never soars, American Assassin is still a solid action flick that marks a promising start to a potential franchise.

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