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#bookreview: The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

the-couple-next-doorJust before Christmas, I finished reading a wonderful mystery/thriller, The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena. This was a book that was impossible to put down, but with one thing and another, I’m only now getting around to reviewing it.

But first, THE BLURB:

It all started at a dinner party. . .
A domestic suspense debut about a young couple and their apparently friendly neighbors—a twisty, rollercoaster ride of lies, betrayal, and the secrets between husbands and wives. . .

.Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

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Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco  soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they’ve kept for years.

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What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

MY REVIEW:

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena is a tale of love, fear, greed, and secrets. Nothing is what it seems, except for the central plot point: A baby is missing from her crib.

Anne and her husband, Marco Conti have gone to a dinner party in the house next door. The sitter has cancelled at the last minute, and the hostess has insisted on an adults only party, as she doesn’t like children. Since they share a wall with these neighbors, they have brought the baby monitor with them, leaving their baby home in the row house next door.

The baby, Cora, disappears during the dinner party.

No one is free of secrets.

Rasbach is the detective, Jennings is his assistant. As the case unfolds they discover that Anne Conti’s family is more than merely rich. They are old money, and secure in their sense of privilege, and her parents are quick to offer a ransom. At every step of the way, Anne’s parents are interfering, shielding Anne and Marco.

Little by little, evidence emerges about each character, none of it flattering. Anne herself is not without secrets.

Anne is a well-drawn character, with a mysterious history she has never fully told to her husband. She is portrayed realistically, flaws and all. Marco is also a flawed protagonist, which makes him intriguing.

I liked how well the story flows. With many twists and turns, it never stalls or halts. This is a gripping mystery, with an ending that took me by surprise, despite the fact the clues were there all along.

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#amreading: The Well at World’s End, William Morris

TheWellattheWorldsEnd423x630First published in 1896, and now in the public domain, The Well at World’s End by William Morris has inspired countless great fantasy authors. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were students at Oxford when they became devotees of Morris’s work, to name just two. I first read this book in college (back in the dark ages) when Ballantine released it as a two-volume set. The original Ballantine covers are below, at the end of this post.

This fairly unknown literary treasure is available for free, as a download for your Kindle or any other reading device. I got my Kindle version through the Gutenberg Project on Google–and it reminded me of what my true roots as a reader of fantasy are. Give me the beautiful prose, the side-quests to nowhere, and wrap them in an illusion of magic, and I’m yours forever.

First, The Blurb:

The rich, interwoven tapestry of William Morris’s four-volume epic, “The Well at the World’s End”, is brought together in a handsome edition featuring the tale of Ralph of Upmeads. Literally and figuratively, this story is the wellspring that gave rise to both C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia”, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”. Many elements of the story will be familiar to those who love these and other modern narratives of fantasy and adventure, set in a mythical world.

Ralph of Upmeads is the fourth and youngest son of the king of a small monarchy, and the only one forbidden of his elder brothers from going in search of his fortune. He runs away, but not before his godmother gives him a necklace with a bead on it, which unerringly directs his destiny to seek out the legendary and titular well at the end of the earth. Along the way, he encounters friends and foes in an ever-changing landscape of rolling hills and barren wood, towering mountains and meandering rivers. Through them all pass roads down which many heroes since have sojourned; united in fellowship, or alone on solitary quests.

Great and splendorous cities await, and in between, thriving towns, tiny villages, and protective farms at the edge of vast wildernesses. The further our intrepid wayfarer gets from home, the more he misses the simple pleasures of his hearth, table, and bed. Many have followed in his footsteps since, both character and reader alike.

Its language is that of another age, but its archetypical settings and denizens are the timeless stuff of once and future legend.

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Portrait of William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870

My Review:

William Morris wrote beautifully crafted poems. The prose in this narrative is both medieval and sumptuous. He was born in 1834 and died in 1896. He was an important figure in the emergence of socialism in Britain, founding the Socialist League in 1884, but breaking with that organization over goals and methods by the end of the decade. Famous as a designer of textiles and wallpaper prints that made the Arts and Crafts style famous, Morris devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1891. Kelmscott was devoted to the publishing of limited-edition, illuminated-style print books. The 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered a masterpiece of book design.

The Well at World’s End is a real departure for the literature of the Victorian era, in that the morality is indicative of the free-thinking bohemian lifestyle of the famous and infamous artists of the day. William Morris was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was a man who enjoyed an unconventional lifestyle in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, all of them celebrating musical, artistic, and literary pursuits.

Using language with elements of the medieval tales written by Chaucer and Chrétien de Troyes, who were his models, Morris tells the story of Ralph of Upmeads, the fourth and youngest son of a minor king. The king is wise and his kingdom prosperous, but nevertheless his four sons are not content. The three older brothers set out, with their father’s blessing. Ralph is still young, and his father wishes him to remain at his side.

Not happy with his lot, Ralph departs without his father’s blessing. He yearns to find knightly adventure and is encouraged by a lady, Dame Katharine, to seek the Well at the World’s End, a magic well which will confer a near-immortality and strengthened destiny on those who drink from it. The Dame is childless, and sees Ralph as a son; she gives him a necklace of blue and green stones with a small box of gold tied on to it, telling him to let no man take it from him, as it will be his salvation. She also gives him money for his journey.

The well lies at the edge of the sea beyond a wall of mountains called “The Wall of the World” by those on the near side of them but “The Wall of Strife” by the more peaceful and egalitarian people who live on the seaward side.

Ralph meets a mysterious Lady of the Dry Tree, the Lady of Abundance who has drunk from the well, and they become lovers. Together and separately, they face many foes and dangers including brigands, slave traders, unscrupulous rulers and treacherous fellow travelers. The lady is murdered, leaving Ralph bereft. Later, Ralph meets another lady, Ursula, and with her help and the aid of the Sage of Sweveham, an ancient hermit who has also drunk of the well, Ralph eventually attains the Well, after many more adventures.

Because the main character, Ralph, and a nameless lady become lovers with no thought of marriage, the novel was not well known in its time, until twenty years after Morris’s death when it was discovered by free-thinking university students, to the dismay of their strait-laced parents.

The underlying story is strong, with many twists and turns. The relationship between the Ralph and the Lady of Abundance is well portrayed, as is the jealousy of her former lover, the death of her husband, and the way she is either loved or feared by everyone around her driving the plot forward. She is a woman of mystery, alternately cruel and kind, one minute the Lady of the Dry Tree, and the next, the Lady of Abundance.

Ralph’s story really begins after her death and the intertwined threads of fate and magic are compelling. The characters Ursula and the Sage of Sweveham are both deep and well-drawn.

I freely confess that in the same way as the works of William Shakespeare are hard for a modern reader to translate, the language of William Morris’s work is difficult to follow. A quote will show you what I mean: “But Ralph gave forth a great wail of woe, and ran forward and knelt by the Lady, who lay all huddled up face down upon the grass, and he lifted her up and laid her gently on her back. The blood was flowing fast from a great wound in her breast, and he tore off a piece of his shirt to staunch it, but she without knowledge of him breathed forth her last breath ere he could touch the hurt, and he still knelt by her, staring on her as if he knew not what was toward.”

When you read it aloud, it rolls off the tongue with beauty and grace and is somehow easier to understand.

I was always intrigued by the works of the medieval and renaissance authors whose works I had to work to translate into modern English. Once translated, reading it was like opening a time capsule. It was a window into a lost world of romance and mystery.

The Well at the Worlds End is a foundational work in the canon of modern fantasy literature. All the great works of the twentieth century have some roots in this novel. The hard-core devotee of true fantasy literature will not be intimidated by the archaic prose. A wealth of tales lies within this volume, all of which come together in the end.

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Parts of this review were originally published  on 31-Jan-2014 on Best in Fantasy

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#amreading: Mad Science Institute, by Sechin Tower

mad science institute front-coverI have been catching up on my long-put off reading, starting with a book by fellow Northwest indie author Sechin TowerMad Science Institute . I had a great time reading this particular YA novel. But first, The Blurb:

Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck is a girl genius with a knack for making robots—and for making robots explode. After her talents earn her admission into a secretive university institute, she is swiftly drawn into a conspiracy more than a century in the making. Meanwhile and without her knowledge, her cousin Dean wages a two-fisted war of vengeance against a villainous genius and his unwashed minions. Separately, the cousins must pit themselves against murderous thugs, experimental weaponry, lizard monsters, and a nefarious doomsday device. When their paths finally meet up, they will need to risk everything to prevent a mysterious technology from bringing civilization to a sudden and very messy end.

My Opinion: This book totally lives up to it’s promise. Soap is a great character, and so is Dean.  She is a little too adventurous in the laboratory, and things sometimes go awry. The story opens with her, and immediately shifts to Dean’s story, but shifts back again.

Dean is older, is a firefighter who loves his work, and has relationship issues, which launch him into the thick of things.

Soap is a feisty girl, who is launched into a series of immersive adventures. She’s a bit testy and awkward when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

The author, Sechin Tower, is a teacher in his real life, and I think he must be pretty awesome in the classroom, because the story contains a lot of historical information imparted in regard to Nicola Tesla and his scientific legacy, presented in such an entertaining way the reader doesn’t realize they’re learning.

All in all, I have three grandkids who would really enjoy this book–and Santa will be obliging this year!

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My #beachreads: Tenth of December & The Husband’s Secret

For my vacation reading this year I had a bit of a split personality book-wise. I had packed George Saunders’ book of short-stories, Tenth of December, and while we were in Cannon Beach, my oldest daughter, Leah, and I went to the local book stores. She found a book by an Australian writer, Liane Moriarty, called The Husband’s Secret.

She liked it so much I had to make a Kindle purchase.

The two books are radically different. Tenth of December is literary science fiction. The Husband’s Secret is contemporary fiction. Both books are about the human condition, and both books are character driven.

Although they are widely different, they are windows into the human soul, and both authors had me thinking about their work long after I finished them. These reviews are now up on Goodreads ,  so my work there is done.

the husbands secretFirst up is The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. Released in 2013 by Berkley, and Penguin in the US, this book is currently a #1 bestseller at Amazon, and Moriarty is listed in the top 100 authors there.

First the Blurb:

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read

My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died. . .

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My review: This book is about loss and grief in Sydney, Australia–but it could easily have been set in Seattle or London and it would still feel true. These women are people you feel you know, and while they are not always likable, they are always true to who they are.

Several characters in the book have secrets they hold on to that they eventually reveal. The concepts of guilt and betrayal loom large in this tale, driving it to the shocking conclusion. Ethics and morality shift and bend under the stress, and three good women do things they consider heinous, and each finds herself justifying her actions.

The Berlin Wall is referred to throughout the novel as Cecelia’s daughter, Esther, works on her school project. And in fact, we learn that Cecilia met John-Paul on the day the Wall finally came down. The Wall is symbolic of many things in this tale, as Tess also has a connection to it.

Rachel is pinched and afraid to love anyone but her grandson. Her son is devastated by the loss of his sister and hurt by his mother’s distance. No matter how he tries, he can’t get close to her.

These are complicated women, faced with an unbearable situation. Their actions and the final resolution is completely true to their characters. This is a slow-moving tale action-wise, but it literally tears through the emotional gamut. I give The Husband’s Secret four and half stars.

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Tenth_of_DecemberNow we come to Tenth of December, by George Saunders, a book of short-stories, also first published as a book in 2013. I reviewed this book as an Audible book before, so you may have a feeling of déjà vu here!

First, the blurb:

In the taut opener, “Victory Lap,” a boy witnesses the attempted abduction of the girl next door and is faced with a harrowing choice: Does he ignore what he sees, or override years of smothering advice from his parents and act? In “Home,” a combat-damaged soldier moves back in with his mother and struggles to reconcile the world he left with the one to which he has returned. And in the title story, a stunning meditation on imagination, memory, and loss, a middle-aged cancer patient walks into the woods to commit suicide, only to encounter a troubled young boy who, over the course of a fateful morning, gives the dying man a final chance to recall who he really is. A hapless, deluded owner of an antiques store; two mothers struggling to do the right thing; a teenage girl whose idealism is challenged by a brutal brush with reality; a man tormented by a series of pharmaceutical experiments that force him to lust, to love, to kill—the unforgettable characters that populate the pages of Tenth of December are vividly and lovingly infused with Saunders’s signature blend of exuberant prose, deep humanity, and stylistic innovation.

Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human.

Unsettling, insightful, and hilarious, the stories in Tenth of December—through their manic energy, their focus on what is redeemable in human beings, and their generosity of spirit—not only entertain and delight; they fulfill Chekhov’s dictum that art should “prepare us for tenderness.”

My Review:

Wow! For once, a book that has a blurb that really tells the truth. Saunders has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful tale in this collection of stunning tales was “Escape from Spiderhead.” This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has in regard to criminals and what punishment they might deserve.

This was not my first trip through this book–the first time was as an Audible book, narrated by Saunders himself. He reads his work with passion and life–I loved hearing him read these tales. But reading them for myself was also a treat–I savored the written word the way he laid it down. I love authors who bend and twist words and phrases into works of art and that is what Saunders does.

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While I was on vacation, I enjoyed two wonderful books written by authors who couldn’t be more different in their approaches to writing. They both write in ways far different from my own approach. Both authors have given me ideas for my own work, in the way they approached certain technical aspects of the craft.

Yes, I was on vacation, but I can’t just leave writing behind–you know me better than that. In between grandkids and the family, I managed short bursts of work on two short-stories and continued revisions on the third book in the Tower of Bones series. Bless my hubby–he tolerates and encourages my obsession with this writing life.

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Timber Rose, by J.L. Oakley – official launch

Timber RoseToday is the launch of J.L. Oakley’s ‘Timber Rose.’ As a third-generation, life-long resident of the Pacific Northwest, I am proud of our rich history. I know it’s not fantasy, but I am a multidimensional reader and I’ve been looking forward to this book all year. I loved her first book, ‘Tree Soldier.’ 

Oakley will be officially launching  ‘Timber Rose’ at Village Books in Fairhaven, in Bellingham Washington today at  4:00 P.M.  If you are a Northwest resident and can make the drive to Bellingham, by all means do so.

Here is the Blurb on the back of the book:

1907. Women climbing mountains in skirts. Loggers fighting for the eight hour day. The forests and mountains of the North Cascades are alive with  progress, but not everyone is on board. Caroline Symington comes from a prominent family in Portland, Oregon. Much to her family’s dismay, she’s more interested in hiking outdoors and exploring the freedoms of a 1907’s New Woman than fancy parties and money. She plans to marry on her own terms, not her parents. When she falls in love with Bob Alford, an enterprising working-class man who loves the outdoors as much as she, little does she know how sorely her theories will be tested. Betrayed by her jealous sister, Caroline elopes, a decision that causes her father to disown her. The young couple moves to a rugged village in the North Cascade Mountains where Caroline begins a new life as the wife of a forest ranger. Though she loves her life in the mountains as a wife and mother, her isolation and the loss of her family is a challenge. As she searches for meaning among nature, she’s ushered along by a group of like-minded women and a mysterious, mountain man with a tragic past.

‘Timber Rose’ has already received a fine review from Barbara Lloyd McMichael of the Bellingham Herald. Published on April 3, 2014, you can read McMichael’s review of Timber Rose here:  Prequel taps early 20th century for drama.

tree soldierI’ve known and admired J.L. Oakley for several years, having ‘met’ her in the virtual universe in 2011, when we both entered the  ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards) contest that year. This year she entered her book, Tree Soldier, and has made it to the second round of the contest.
Janet is also an active member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, of which I am also a member. She has been a presenter as several PNWA conventions, and is a well-known historian here in the Pacific Northwest.
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And if you are curious to know more about her, here is Janet’s official bio:


About the writer:

Janet Oakley is an award winning author of memoir essays and novels. Her work appears in various magazines, anthologies, and other media including the Cup of Comfort series and Historylink, the on-line encyclopedia of Washington State history.  She writes social studies curricula for schools and historical organizations, demonstrates 19thcentury folkways, and was for many years the curator of education at a small county museum in La Conner, WA.  Her historical novels, The Tree Soldier set in 1930s Pacific NW and The Jossing Affair set in WW II Norway were PNWA Literary Contest finalists.  Tree Soldier went on to win the 2013 EPIC ebook award for historical fiction and grand prize for Chanticleer Book Reviews Lit Contest.

She writes both non-fiction and fiction, applying her research skills to both types of writing.  In 2006 she was the manager of a History Channel grant, researching old court cases in early Washington Territory.

She especially enjoys the hunt in old newspapers, court cases, and other delights in archives around the country.  The history of the Pacific Northwest is rich and not as well known in the rest of the country beyond Lewis and Clark’s passage through, yet crucial happenings took place here that influenced the formation of United State of America.  In December 2012, an article on a  19th century bark that was a part of the coastal trade between Puget’s Sound and San Francisco was published the prestigious Sea Chest.

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This wraps up my post for today, but if you have a chance, get to Village Books in Bellingham and meet Janet, a.k.a. J.L. Oakley.

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