Take Out by Margaret Maron

Sigrid is moving on from Nauman’s’s death, investigating a double homicide in a neighborhood with two suspects. A homeless man and a minor star of the opera industry grown old wind up dead together on a park bench in front of one’s family and the other’s friend, both of whom are suspected of killing one man purposely and the other accidentally through sharing their takeout from the nearby restaurant. Sigrid simultaneously searches for the answer to the mysterious reason for Nauman’s’s journey on which he died.

The latest in the Sigrid Harald series, this is a nice and neat continuation after a couple decades—kudos to Maron! However, I feel that the resolution to the murders didn’t clarify every point, but I’ll leave that up to the reader, since it’s a wonderfully twisty, turny story.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

Charmian London took care of Jack London, typing as he dictated, editing his work, catering to his need for constant attention from “the crowd,” and picking up the pieces of his alcoholic binges. Products of their time, the Londons settled into a routine where Charmian sacrificed her life to Jack’s success, much as her friend Bessie Houdini did for her husband. Although Jack’s dalliances are often referenced, Charmian and Houdini’s affair is only hinted at throughout the story, before being stated outright only after Jack’s death.

Small contradictions in this book had me going back for clarity so many times that I stopped keeping track of them, accepting them as a minor annoyance of the writing. The story begins well after the London’s greatest adventures, a shame, since they’re referred to so much that I really wanted to read about them. I know this is considered historical fiction, but I researched as I read, and everything I found agreed with Rosenberg’s version, including Bessie’s condition, which prevented her having children.

The writing didn’t flow well for me, as I was more interested in things other than all the titillating details of adultery. Near the end, two events stood out that distracted me from the story. When Houdini tends to Charmian after she’s drenched in the rain, he “lifts” her magically from the bed. We all know the floating woman is a trick, so this seemed superfluously silly in this scene. Later, after Bessie acknowledges the affair of her husband and best friend, grants her acceptance of it to Charmian, and shows her friend her secret room of dolls, she passes out and stops breathing. Charmian brings her back to life by calling her name and touching her face. Although the book was nearly over, I almost stopped reading here.

I received this book through NetGalley for an honest review. I enjoyed reading about Charmian London, but the secret life of her affair with Houdini was more melodramatic than intriguing. Still, it was interesting to learn more about the Londons and the Houdinis in general, and it sparked my interest enough to do a bit more research as I read.

A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev

Kimi spent her childhood in isolation due to an immune disease, her only friend, Rahul, the son of the police officer shot protecting her father, who sacrificed his own childhood to pay off the debt to her father for he and his siblings’ education. Love grew quietly, but was thwarted by class difference, complicated emotions, and, of course, things left unsaid. In this continuing story from the previous novel, the tone changes to the intimacy of an intense friendship created by Rahul supporting Kimi throughout her ongoing illness and eventual heart transplant. Switching from present tense to past tense when they first met, the reader watches their relationship grow and develop unevenly due to their differing class levels, and especially through the connection to her family through obligation on both sides. In the present, Kimi is in danger from the criminal operating the black market for stolen organs by murder. She must place all her trust in Rahul to aide her in finding out the truth behind her heart transplant, though in the end, it leads her back home to a horrifying secret.

The romance is deeply embedded in this suspense thriller, with hot and heavy hitting hard in intricate scenes of the back and forth of a couple who cannot allow themselves to be completely vulnerable. Dev does a superb job of crafting a relationship with obstacles seemingly too large to overcome, all the while ramping up the suspense of the danger to Kimi and the secret to which only the reader is privileged to know. The ending line will make the reader laugh out loud!

I was fortunate to receive this lovely novel from the author through a giveaway. Although it can be read as a standalone novel, A Change of Heart sets up the storyline and enriches the experience of this book. I highly recommend reading both.

Ripper by Isabel Allende

Teenage Amanda ups the ante in her online mystery game with diverse, global players by introducing a real murder for investigation, using her grandpa as her game “henchman.” Amanda convinces her father, San Francisco’s Chief of Homicide, that the following murders add up to a serial killer. When her mother disappears, the gamers link her to the murders and assist in finding her. As riveting as this story is, a police detective sharing vital information with civilians, especially a teenager, doesn’t make sense. Amanda’s parents, who are divorced, alternate between frustration with her inappropriate efforts at police work and aiding in her investigation without realistic transitions, often changing their attitude from one sentence to the next. That being said, if one can suspend judgment, the characters of Amanda and her grandfather are compelling and humorous, with a unique, quirky relationship, and worth the read. (less)

Everybody’s Son by Thritty Umrigar

After the death of his son, Judge Coleman uses his influence and connections to foster and adopt 9-year-old African-American Anton, convincing his mother Anton is happier with the Colemans. She’d been kidnapped and drugged by her dealer, leaving Anton locked in their apartment during a heat wave with little food, until he escaped a week later, unaware of his mother’s whereabouts. Judge Coleman’s position and wealth boost Anton up through the ranks of politics, with Anton choosing to have no contact with a mother he believes rejected him. The secrets seep out eventually, damaging the Coleman’s marriage and Anton’s relationships with all of his parents, as Anton desperately tries to determine his identity.

The crux of the story is that a black mother’s son is stolen from her by a white man, whiffs of slavery nipping at her heels. As Umrigar presents white privilege and systemic racism within the judicial system, she attempts to garner sympathy for a man in a powerful position based on the loss of his son and his emotional distress debating his desire to have a child and the ethical choice to keep a family together. He chooses poorly and everyone struggles with his decision.

Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman

Blackbird House witnesses unusual love stories throughout its lifetime, from the young wife waiting for her husband to return from the sea to the orphaned young woman who had no home coming to live with the disfigured man who believed he would never feel the warmth of a woman. Often the yearning is only fulfilled when it can later refuse to be acknowledged. The townspeople care for the inhabitants of the isolated home.

The characters’ circumstances are nearly as tangible as the people themselves and Hoffman has carefully shown these influences in every interaction. Each resident connects somehow with previous owners of the house, often as a relation, but always in spirit, sharing the strength to live in a harsh environment. The gorgeous prose draws the reader into the stories easily.

Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews

Greer must find a perfect beach town for her next director to redeem her reputation after the fiasco of her last project. Cypress Key fits the director’s creative dream, complete with abandoned casino for the climax explosion, but Eben, the town’s mayor, seems to be in charge of everything, thwarting her every request to sustain his own vision for community growth rather than commercial development. Greer becomes torn between the townspeople and the movie crew that includes a spoiled star who attempts to scam on the mayor’s daughter. Betwixt unscripted stunts, the town’s resentful socialite, and the contrary agendas, Greer squeaks out with her wits and her sanity, finding more than she expected was possible in a small town.

Mary Kay Andrews’ writing style flows with humor and charm, enticing readers into a delightful tale of worlds clashing, while gracefully representing the complexities of individuals on all sides, so that no one comes across as a villain. She brilliantly presents conflicts with seemingly no possible resolution, yet ties it all up in the end, without losing credibility or character integrity.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

Maddie and Ellis are trapped by money—his family’s—while a second world war rages in Europe, as he cannot serve in the war due to a medical condition. When his father kicks them out of his family home for their unseemly behavior, Ellis determines to win back his love by redeeming the family name from his father’s loutish attempt to prove the Loch Ness monster. In Scotland, Maddie is alienated by her husband, whose loyalty is to his best friend and their travel companion Hank. She discovers more about her marriage and their friendship than Ellis does about Nessie, and she begins to question everything about her life, and even her husband’s “medical condition.” As Ellis and Hank display boorish behavior toward the locals, Maddie finds comfort in their compassion for her. She ends up caring for an injured employee of their inn, endearing herself to the innkeeper and his employees.

This story flows well, with characters who retain their integrity, as allies shift and secrets come to light. Gruen represents the complexities of emotions and relationships, with betrayals and revelations as catalysts. Class distinction in all its petty elitism is laid out perfectly, emitting its fear and paranoia. In the end, a love story emerges like a butterfly.

Foretold (Ghost Gifts #2) by Laura Spinella

Aubrey is alone, with only her position as psychic consultant to law enforcement to distract her from the fact that her husband Levi has taken their son away in the hope that he can somehow circumvent the inherited psychic ability unfolding in frightening ways in their only child. As Levi reports on a mysterious murder connected to a crime family, Aubrey reconnects with Zeke, her first love, who visits her unexpectedly, and has always understood her psychic power better than anyone, perhaps even her spouse. Levi suspects her friend is involved in the homicide, but Aubrey knows better, as their jobs lead them to the same crime. Spinella keeps the reader guessing about Zeke’s motives and actions. When their son is kidnapped, Levi questions Aubrey about Zeke, but she maintains focus, and they reunite to save him.

The Ghost Gifts series presents ghosts as an actuality, invisible to all but a few. Complex characters play out complicated dynamics with psychic ability at the core of the conflict. Spinella carefully weaves it into the story as one more thing to deal with in the life of Aubrey and her family. She is considered a paranormal romance writer; however, her stories are fantastic mystery thrillers, as well as unique ghost stories.

Laura Spinella gifted me an autographed copy in a giveaway and I love it!

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni—pub date April 24, 2018

Ocular albinism defined Sam Hill’s life, earning him the nickname “Devil Boy” in his private catholic school and his mother’s consistent reassurance that it was “God’s will.” He believed God sent his best friends Ernie, the only black child in the school, and Mickey, a girl who chose to not fit into the school. A tragedy lifts him out of his pragmatic life as an ophthalmologist wearing brown contacts into one of atonement in a developing country. He removes the contacts in an epiphany of self-acceptance.

This story lays out the life of a boy who cannot embrace his difference, despite the support of family and friends. It’s clear to the reader that he has better options than the ones he chooses, but often that’s true of anyone. Challenges complicate life, and not everyone rises to the challenge, and that’s okay. Self-acceptance is a struggle for most, and especially for those with a unique appearance and a quiet demeanor. I’m fortunate to have received an ARC through NetGalley of this wonderful story.