Mystery/Thriller

The Night Child

*Trigger warning. This book has graphic violence and sexual content

When Nora begins to hallucinate about a blond haired, blue-eyed child with no body, her carefully crafted life as a wife, mother and high school teacher slowly falls apart. She begins seeing a psychiatrist when no biological solution can be found for her visions or frequent headaches. What emerges from these sessions is the truth about her past. Will what she has never been able to face shatter her or will she be able to embrace her past and move forward into the future?

To begin with, there is a great deal of promise in this debut novel. It is a fast-paced adventure which I read in one sitting. It definitely needs a TRIGGER WARNING as the content deals with childhood sexual assault, occasionally quite graphically. Anna Quinn’s writing is beautiful, often haunting and poetic. She draws the reader in and makes you chase her breathlessly to the resolution.

However, I was disappointed that the book was so ruthlessly plot driven. From the opening sentence we are thrust violently into the action with no reason to sympathise with, trust or even like Nora, the protagonist. I wanted the story to slow down occasionally, allowing me to take a breath and understand the characters more deeply. Even Nora’s husband Paul , who tried to be a two-dimensional jerk in the book, felt that with a little development and nuance could become a complex and sympathetic character. Perhaps this is a matter of taste and character development isn’t what’s wanted in a thriller. But I felt like this book danced on the edge of something much richer and more complex which I would have liked to see come to fruition. I sense that Ms. Quinn has the skill to produce something more than a “non-stop thrill ride” and I hope to see her develop that in further efforts.

From the publisher:

All Nora Brown wants is to teach high school English and live a quiet life in Seattle with her husband and six-year-old daughter. But one November day, moments after dismissing her class, a girl’s face appears above the students’ desks—a wild numinous face with startling blue eyes, a face floating on top of shapeless drapes of purples and blues where arms and legs should have been. Terror rushes through Nora’s body—the kind of raw terror you feel when there’s no way out, when every cell in your body, your entire body, is on fire—when you think you might die.

Twenty-four hours later, while on Thanksgiving vacation, the face appears again. This time, it whispers, Remember the Valentine’s dress. Shaken once again, Nora meets with neurologists and eventually, a psychiatrist. As the story progresses, a terrible secret is discovered—a secret that pushes Nora toward an even deeper psychological breakdown.

The Night Child is a breathtaking story about split consciousness, saving a broken child, and the split between past and present. It’s about the extraordinary capacity within each of us to save ourselves through visionary means.

Literary Fiction

Summer at Bluebell Bank

One thing I truly love to do is curl up with a novel by Romamunde Pilcher or Maeve Binchy. I adore the coziness of their stories and the very pervasive sense of place in each novel. I was hopeful for a similar experience when I read the synopsis of this novel.

Jen Mouat has taken on quite a task, weaving an intricate plot with many, many character and pieces, as well as an intricate backstory to pull into the present through memories and flashbacks. This is a story which could easily get bogged down. But I am so happy to say it does not. Instead of feeling rushed or crowded, the story unfolds at a nice pace. Each piece unfolds at the right time and in a nice rhythm, never feeling out of place or forced.

Ms. Mouat has written a wonderful story about the complexity of family, friendships and the difficulties of change. She explores the secrets we keep and the deceptions we use to keep from feeling rejection and lonliness. The Cotton family is full of love and tradition as well as tension and the struggle to establish an identity in a large, rowdy family. Coming from a similar family dynamic, I found them familiar and lovely.

As an added bonus, the story bounces between a cozy bookstore to be and a lovely family summer home – now full-time residence- with all the layers of memory and tradition that accompany that setting.

From the publisher: Summoned by her childhood best friend, Kate Vincent doesn’t stop to think. Instead she books at one-way ticket from New York back to Wigtown, Scotland, leaving her glittering new life behind. Scenes of idyllic holidays at Bluebell Bank with the Cotton family dance in her mind, but not everything has stayed the way it once was…

Kate has given herself until the end of the summer to stay in Wigtown. Can she bring the Cottons back together, and save the family who once saved her?

 

 

Literary Fiction

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

Earlier this year I decided I want to read more books by diverse authors. I especially want to read more from the perspective of the Islamic community, both here and abroad. One of the reasons I enjoy reading is because it opens me to perspectives and experiences that I may not ever have otherwise. I’ve read multiple books by Middle Eastern authors this year, ( here, here, and here) but The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is the first I have read from the perspective of a Muslim woman living in America.

Set in Indiana in the 1970’s, this story explores what it is like to come of age in a place where you are consistently “the other” and often “the enemy.” Khadra lives with her father, mother and two brothers in a small Muslim community in Indiana. Her father is one of the coordinators for an Islamic community center. While Khadra and her family live in America, eventually even becoming citizens after the Iranian revolution, they do not wish to become part of American culture. In fact, as Khadra grows up, it becomes harder and harder for her to hold to the rigid tenets of a culture she loves deeply, but which she also feels keeps her from becoming fully herself.

Told as a retrospective from an adult Khadra who has broken away from her community and lives independently as a photo-journalist, this is a coming of age story unlike any I have read before. Khadra is brave, beautiful and complicated in ways which make her more alike than unlike any of us who struggle to find our voice and our way. Her spiritual struggles resonated deeply with questions I have asked of my own theology and faith community.

I loved this story deeply. While in part I think it may be a case of the perfect book at the perfect time, I also know it’s a beautiful and important story for any person at any time. This is one of my favorites of the year so far. I can’t wait to read more by this author and about Islamic culture.

From the publisher: Syrian immigrant Khadra Shamy is growing up in a devout, tightly knit Muslim family in 1970s Indiana, at the crossroads of bad polyester and Islamic dress codes. Along with her brother Eyad and her African-American friends, Hakim and Hanifa, she bikes the Indianapolis streets exploring the fault-lines between “Muslim” and “American.”

When her picture-perfect marriage goes sour, Khadra flees to Syria and learns how to pray again. On returning to America she works in an eastern state — taking care to stay away from Indiana, where the murder of her friend Tayiba’s sister by Klan violence years before still haunts her. But when her job sends her to cover a national Islamic conference in Indianapolis, she’s back on familiar ground: Attending a concert by her brother’s interfaith band The Clash of Civilizations, dodging questions from the “aunties” and “uncles,” and running into the recently divorced Hakim everywhere.

Beautifully written and featuring an exuberant cast of characters, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf charts the spiritual and social landscape of Muslims in middle America, from five daily prayers to the Indy 500 car race. It is a riveting debut from an important new voice.

Nonfiction - Health and Well-being

Good Night: A Mindful Approach to Healthy Sleep, Positive Dreaming, and Waking to Your Best Self

I’ve had trouble sleeping since receiving a cancer diagnosis over twenty years ago. This is a common occurrence with traumatic medical diagnoses which often corrects itself over time. For me, it set a pattern of behavior that includes insomnia as my standard stress response. Sleep itself, or the difficulty in getting healthy sleep, creates stress, which causes insomnia, which increases stress. It becomes a terrible pattern.

This year I began to really focus on sleep as well as meditation, positive thought patterns and other mindfulness practices. I have read a few other sleep books this year, but this is the first directed entirely to more mental and meditative practices.

This book is divided into three parts: simple sleep habits, dream journals, and gentle waking practices. Scattered through out the book are dreamy illustrations and quotes about sleep, rest, and mindfulness. The tone is gentle and the chapters short with many practical examples to put into practice.

Although some of the tips overlap with other sleep books, the dreaming and waking sections were something I have not encountered in other books. I am not one who remembers dreams very often and have never experienced a desire to interpret them (even feeling a bit of skepticism about the practice), but the ideas and practices in the dream section still help some appeal and may change the way I approach even this aspect of my life.

Perhaps the part I enjoyed most about the book were the mindful waking practices detailed in the third section of the book. I’m not one to leap out of bed ready to embrace the day, so these gentle ideas will definitely make their way into my morning routine.

Overall, I believe this book offers many practical options and plenty of thoughtful considerations to improve sleep habits, not only for the poor sleeper, but also those prone to lengthy hibernation.

I received this book free for fair review from NetGalley

Literary Fiction

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs

“Even a hundred years past the town’s founding a visitor to Amicus might guess it had been laid out by rival drunks.”

When the first line of a novel makes you chuckle aloud, chances are you aren’t going to walk away unhappy. This book is a beautifully written, but not always easy to read. The Campbell family is a very real family, with dysfunction, sibling rivalry, addictions, personality conflicts, sexual identity issues, codependency and a great deal of other unhealthy baggage. If this were all there is to family, it would be a truly bleak story. But family also has deep love, shared history, understanding, loyalty, and the bond of shared childhood

Janet Peery has taken an honest look at a family in decline, in their relationships, their health, both physical and emotional, and their age. She doesn’t shy from the distasteful facets of humanity, but her characters are so complex and carefully crafted that they soar as heroes only to plummet as tragic figures in the next sentence. As a recovering codependent and someone who works with people in recovery, the raw honesty of this story often left me breathless. Each family member is relatable and real to the point of cutting the reader to the bone. The book doesn’t make me “feel good” but it makes brings a deep, abiding joy of the permanence of love and the heartbreaking beauty that is life in this world.

In a word, this book is exquisite.

I received this book from Net Galley for impartial review

Mystery/Thriller

The Good Widow

What would you do if the police showed up at your door while your husband was on a business trip in Kansas? What would you do if they told you he had died in a terrible car crash in Maui…and that it was no business trip? Thus begins the thrill ride that is The Good Widow. Much like I See You by Clare MacKintosh, this book is great for those who love who love to be scared but aren’t interested in gore.

To begin with, I thought this was a well-written, enjoyable book. I love the shifting point of view (it’s one of my favorite writing techniques). I found the pace well done…each bit of information led naturally to the next part of the story. It never felt rushed and I always wanted to keep turning the page to find out what would be revealed next. The dialogue is clever and the emotions are believable on a subject that could become maudlin or melodramatic.

Sadly, I had the “villian” pegged from the first moment they appeared. I don’t think that means the plot was predictable, but sometimes, you just see the twist coming. The fact that I still enjoyed the book, however, shows that the details and the story are still captivatiing even if you know what’s coming.

Even though I didn’t like the characters Dylan or James, I still was able to sympathize with them and cared about what happened to them. Jacks was believable in her fear, grief and rage. I found her a well developed protagonist even though I did occasionally want to shake her. I appreciated her sister’s a character as a means of support and as a foil for her relationship with James.

I do think this is an excellent suspense thriller without being violent or bloody, which is the type of thriller I prefer. I think this will make a great “beach read” this summer and will recommend it to other reader

Nonfiction - Social/Cultural

Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter

As a cisgender woman, raised in a cis environment, I have a lot to learn about gender identity issues. I think it’s very important to make an effort to see and understand people who express themselves differently from us, whether those differences are religious, cultural, ethnic or sexual identity. I have honestly never considered the inherent sexism and dehumanization that’s exists in gender typing. i would argue that most people who identify normatively also do not. Mostly, because we have never had to.

I thought the author did a fabulous job making four cases for areas where gender typing is commonly accepted, but not actually necessary. It also was very informative to me as someone who identifies female with three daughters, to reconsider inherent sexism in systems which also leads to discrimination in gender stereotyping. Perhaps the most profound thought in the book for me was this:

“Asking a person, “What are you?” is very different from asking a person, “Who are you?” The second question is relevant to the confirmation of our personal identities. The first one is not.”

I appreciate the thoughtful, information and relevant way the author discussed not only the issues, but also possible, practical solutions. I’m grateful to have the knowledge to enter into conversation on topics with facts and statistics rather than rhetoric and emotionalism. The only way we can hope to be better is to understand better. This book is an important tool for understanding.

I received this book free for impartial review.