Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto
by
Ann Patchett

Here’s a perfect example of a book that is great to re-read. I remember loving Bel Canto the first time I read it so on a recent trip to the beach and with the need to grab something quick, I chose Bel Canto from my shelf. Published in 2001, it begins with a lavish birthday party held at the home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa, chairman of the largest electronics firm in Japan, is the guest of honor and the hosts hope to convince him to build a plant in their country.

Mr. Hosokawa is a passionate opera lover and the only reason he’s there is because Roxanne Coss, the beautiful and most talented opera singer in the world, has agreed to perform.

Everything goes wrong just after she performs. Terrorists invade the home in order to kidnap the country’s president. When they discover the president is not there, the three generals and fifteen young soldiers have to decide what to do about the nearly two hundred guests who are now hostages.

After the initial release of all the staff, women and children, except Roxanne Coss, the group of hostages has been reduced to forty. In a fascinating stand-off between the terrorists and the country’s government, days become weeks and then extend to months, during which the generals, their soldiers and the hostages undergo remarkable transformations. Days revolve around the hostages’ infatuation with Miss Coss, her music, and her daily practice sessions. Another central figure is Mr. Hosokawa’s personal translator, Gen Watanabe, who takes on the all-consuming task of interpreting negotiations and helping the international guests communicate with each other. Other important characters include Joachim Messner a negotiator from the International Red Cross, whose patience is tried as talks drag on, Vice President Ruben Iglesias, who assumes a completely different role in his own home, and of course, Mr. Hosakowa, who didn’t want to attend the party, but may have found happiness as a hostage. There are many other great characters, including the generals and their soldiers and Patchett shows their personalities and human sides to give the reader an understanding of their lives and their cause. These and other surprises are best for the reader to discover first-hand.

The group settles into a new and comfortable routine. Life is pretty good at the vice president’s home and many are in no hurry for the conflict to be resolved. In addition, hostages and their captors begin to form tentative friendships, blurring the lines between them. They may be in denial, but Messner and the reader know that this can’t go on forever.

I enjoyed Bel Canto just as much the second time around and recommend it to readers who enjoy stories about how people change under constrained and dangerous circumstances. Heroes emerge and others look deep inside themselves. And many discover (ironically) the freedom to redefine themselves during their captivity.

Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. You can check out my reviews of some of her other books here:

The Dutch House
Commonwealth
State of Wonder

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Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Force of Nature
by
Jane Harper

Force of Nature is the corporate teambuilding retreat you never want to go on. When five women from BaileyTennants accounting firm begin a four-day excursion in the Australian Bushland and only four return, police and rescue workers begin an urgent search. Mirror Falls is a dangerous place, with dense growth, confusing trails and no cell signal.

The four women who emerge from the forest are hungry, dehydrated and bruised and none of them can explain what happened to their colleague Alice Russell.

To make matters worse, Alice is lost in the same area where a young woman went missing twenty-five years earlier. Sarah Sondenberg was never found, but three other women were killed around the same time and a man named Martin Kovac went to jail for the murders. Does Martin’s son, Samuel have anything to do with Alice’s disappearance?

Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper are especially interested in finding Alice. She’s their inside contact at BaileyTennants, under suspicion for money laundering. Falk and Carmen are trying to acquire documents to implicate Chairwoman Jill Bailey (one of the women) and her CEO brother, Daniel Bailey who was in a different group on the same trip.

Alternating chapters describe the events during the hike and the search. Jill is in her fiftes and out of her element, but remains the boss of the group.  Alice is an aggressive corporate climber in her forties, selfish and cruel, especially to Lauren Shaw who was her classmate in school. Lauren is more tentative and self-conscious and often the perfect prey for Alice. Bree and Bethany are twenty-something twins, though very different in appearance and attitude. Their twin relationship has been fractured and this dynamic plays nicely into the plot. I especially enjoyed seeing how the five women interact when things go bad and they have to make decisions and ration food and water.

There are several subplots that figure in well with the story. Falk is still coming to terms with his father’s death, though it’s been seven years, and the search at Mirror Falls brings back memories of the hikes he refused to go on with his dad. We see into Jill’s conscience and learn of her reluctance to get into the family business. Alice and Lauren’s history involves some cruel hazing and now their daughters are vulnerable teenagers. In addition, tension between Bree and Bethany affects several events on the excursion. Will the sisters reunite or turn against each other instead?

A few red herrings point the reader the other way while the plot continues to develop. They all lead to a big scene full of raw feelings and shocking reactions.

I enjoyed reading Force of Nature. It’s a fast read with interesting characters. Harper uses one of my favorite story-telling elements by including nature’s power to drive the characters and plot. I also like how she draws parallels between seemingly different characters and their situations. And the whole story revolves around parent/child relationships over two generations, always a relevant theme and one I like to read about.

I recommend Force of Nature to readers who like mysteries and suspense set in dangerous and intimidating surroundings. Force of Nature is the second book the Aaron Falk series, after The Dry (read my review here), but it can be read as a standalone.

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Audiobook Review: The River by Peter Heller

The River
by
Peter Heller

Rating:

Wynn and Jack have been best friends ever since they met during freshman orientation at Dartmouth. They’re from different parts of the country: Wynn from Vermont and Jack from a Colorado ranch. But they bonded over their mutual love and deep respect for the outdoors and have taken many trips together. Now, with time off from college, they embark on a wildnerness canoe trip up the Maskwa River in northern Canada. Months in the planning, they are fit and able, and totally prepared, maybe.

A wildfire in the distance has them worried. Still, they keep paddling through the lakes leading to the river, hoping for the best. Once they enter the river, there will be no turning back. When they hear a man and a woman arguing on a nearby island, they decide to warn the couple about the fire. Strangely, when they land, the couple is nowhere to be found.

Later, a man appears, alone, injured and dazed. Is this the man they heard? Where is the woman? Something isn’t right and their careful plans are no good. The only sure thing now is the approaching fire and the swift river current.

I enjoyed listening to this descriptive and atmospheric thriller, read by Mark Deakins. Deakins has a deep voice that enhances the drama and tension of the story. Heller includes the friends’ important backstories which play well into the plot. Wynn, an art major, has an optimistic and trusting nature. Jack is more suspicious and more quick-tempered. But the two have always complemented each other and assume different roles. Neither is ready for what’s ahead, however, and an interesting dynamic develops between them as the tension builds.

I love stories where nature is a dominant force and The River is a good example of this. Heller’s descriptions make it easy to picture the lakes and river and are at times poetic. That makes sense because Heller is also an award-winning nature writer and author of literary nonfiction. (Read more about Heller here.) That said, I thought that the abundance of description bogged down the story a bit. There’s a lot of discussion of gear and different brands, fly fishing lures, and repeated references to filtered squeeze bottles, gathering berries, and wishing they had thought to bring salt. I enjoyed that part at first, but felt it got in the way later.

I always naively think rivers run south but the river they’re on runs north. That got me wanting to picture their route. A little research led me to this link which explains that the Maskwa River of the novel is actually the Winisk River and that Heller based the Cree village of Wapahk on the village of Peawanuck. You can learn more about this here at knopfdoubleday.com.

The River is a fast listen, at just seven hours. I listened to it during my walks and was totally engrossed.

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Book Review: Woman on the Edge by Samantha M. Bailey

Woman on the Edge
by
Samantha M. Bailey

Rating:

The last thing Morgan Kincaid expects while waiting for a Chicago subway train is for someone to come up to her, thrust a baby in her arms and jump in front of a train. Nicole Markham’s last words to Morgan are, “I know what you want. Don’t let anyone hurt her.” And then she calls Morgan by her name.

Morgan, a social worker, could see desperation in the woman’s eyes. But who was she, how did she know Morgan’s name? What made her give up her baby and take her own life?

Those are the simple questions, believe it or not, but both women’s back stories complicate the investigation even more and soon Morgan is a person of interest. Morgan is determined to clear her name, at great risk.

What a great premise for a psychological thriller! This is a fast-paced read, with plenty of momentum. I don’t want to give too much away because these books are better to experience first-hand. There’s a good supply of suspicious secondary characters with questionable agendas that kept me wondering how the story would sort itself out.

The psychological aspect plays into Nicole’s story. She’s just had a baby and is having trouble remembering things. She’s also the CEO of a publicly-traded company called Breathe which sells yoga wear and mindfulness products. Her assistant is keeping things running while she’s out, but there’s a power struggle going on behind the scenes

I enjoyed reading this debut novel. I thought the plot was well-developed, and the author did a good job typing up loose ends at what was a wild finish, requiring the standard suspension of disbelief. I thought the details of Nicole’s work situation were a little silly, however, but that’s something readers need to go along with, rather than get bogged down by an unrealistic scenario.

I like the double play of the title, too. And, while not a heavy book, the author touches on important themes of marriage, betrayal and most importantly, postpartum depression. I recommend Woman on the Edge to readers who like quick thrillers and look forward to reading future books by Bailey.

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Book Review: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

A Hero of France
by
Alan Furst

Rating:

If you’re looking for an excellent spy thriller, check out A Hero of France, published in 2016. It’s the first book by Alan Furst I’ve read, but he has written many. Furst is considered the master of historical spy novels and I can see why. In A Hero of France, a man known as Mathieu leads an important cell in the French Resistance. They are helping downed RAF pilots escape occupied France, so that the men can get back in the air and beat the Germans.

There’s nothing complicated about their goal. It’s both practical and patriotic. But no life can be more complex, and dangerous, than the secretive life of a Resistance leader. Set in Paris, in 1941, Mathieu has collected a group of loyal resisters, including an arms dealer/nightclub owner, a teenage girl who works as a bicycle messenger, a wealthy woman of the upper class, a Jewish teacher and a young female aristocrat. On another floor of the abandoned Saint-Yves hotel where Mathieu is based lives Joëlle, who has fallen in love with her mysterious neighbor.

This fast-paced story starts with one successful crossing and progresses into more complex arrangements involving an ace Polish pilot who needs to get back in the war. Mathieu must depend on instinct and nerve to make the right decisions about the contacts he makes. Some are ruthless and some can’t be trusted, including those who say they want to get in the game and a British connection with another agenda. Soon a German investigator is sent to their Paris office, charged with hunting down resisters.

Furst gives readers a good look at Paris during the German occupation, at a time before the United States entered the war. Curfews, blacked out windows, dangerous streets and more dangerous skies set the way of life for all Parisians.

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical story. It’s a quick read and is both entertaining and educational and I recommend it to readers who like historical fiction and stories about spies and intrigue.

I look forward to reading more books by Alan Furst.

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Audiobook Review: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

Hidden Bodies
by
Caroline Kepnes

Narrated by Santino Fontana

Rating:

I just finished listening to Hidden Bodies, the sequel to You by Caroline Kepnes (read my review of You here). It’s the continuation of Joe Goldberg’s twisted serial-killing narration as he leaves the New York bookstore he manages and heads out to Los Angeles. Joe is on a revenge search for the new girl in his life, Amy who has taken off with rare books from the bookstore.

As is expected, Joe is full of sarcasm with a huge chip on his shoulder. But in some ways, he’s like everyone else, searching for love. The problem is, he just can’t let things go. In addition, Joe still has problems on the East coast. His biggest mistake is the DNA he left at Peach Salinger’s family mansion. In addition, the wrongly convicted therapist in jail for killing Beck has a team working on a reversal and cops are sniffing around.

Out in California, Joe gets mixed up in several situations, and the killing continues, but then he meets Love Quinn and falls in love. But Love’s twin, Forty is a big problem. He’s a wannabe script writer and drug addict with a sharp instinct for taking advantage.

Joe’s life on the West coast is a running commentary on the shallowness of the place and the stupidity of everyone he meets. His disdain for consumer culture, social media and false conversations contributes to the pent-up anger that propels him into murder. Joe’s intense rants are what makes this story so appealing. Yes, he’s a serial killer, but he has a point. And, buried deep in Joe’s anger is a someone soft and, can I say lovable? Well not in real life, but in a story, yes.

I especially enjoyed listening to Hidden Bodies because the narrator, Santino Fontana, is fantastic as Joe. Fontana also narrates You, but I read the print copy, so hadn’t experienced how much he nails Joe’s personality. Having the story in your ears like that is an intense listen. I don’t think Hidden Bodies is quite as good as You. Sequels are always hard. And if you’re thinking of reading or listening to it, be warned, it’s what I call a little racy! But I recommend both You and Hidden Bodies for readers who like twisted stories about complicated characters.

If you’d like to read more about Hidden Bodies, check out these other bloggers’ reviews.

GritLitGirls Book Review Nook
Reens Reads and Writes
What Jess Reads

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Audiobook Review: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room
by
Chris Bohjalian

Rating:

Kristin Chapman has agreed to let her husband, Richard host a bachelor party for his younger brother, Philip. She’s sure there will be hired entertainment, but she trusts Richard, even though Philip and his friends are a bit on the wild side. After all, Richard and Kristin are settled, in the prime of their lives and enjoying the comforts of wealth and success. Philip is a managing partner of a New York investment banking firm, Kristin is a respected high school teacher and they live with their young daughter in an upscale neighborhood in Westchester.

But wild is not the word. Before long, the burly and intimidating bodyguards who accompanied the “dancers” are dead and the girls, Sonja and Alexandra, have fled the house, leaving Richard, Philip and the rest of the guys in a wrecked house with the two dead men.

When morning comes, Richard begins to grasp how much trouble he’s in. Shame and horror fill him when Kristin learns of her husband’s transgressions and their young daughter is exposed to a sordid and dangerous world.

The repercussions of these events are endless. The story explodes on the internet, news reporters hound him and friends keep their distance. Richard is put on leave at work, Kristin shuns him and their daughter worries her parents will divorce. And it’s soon revealed that the Russian girls, possibly underage, had been kidnapped and were brought to New York as sex workers. Richard also faces lawsuits and a blackmail scheme, but the worst is the damage to his family. Or maybe the worst is that Richard is haunted by his encounter with Alexandra.

As detectives chase down the Russians behind the girls’ kidnappers, as well as the girls, Richard, now understands Alexandra and Sonja’s situation, tries to do what’s right and fix his marriage, leading to the inevitable confrontation between the story’s players. Throughout the story, both Richard and Kristin, whose voice is strong in the story, struggle with their decisions as they face their losses.

I enjoyed the audiobook version of The Guest Room, narrated by Grace Experience and Mozhan Marno, who switch between Alexandra’s story and the third person voices in the alternate chapters. I was especially drawn into the story by Experience, the voice of Alexandra. Through the author’s story and Experience’s voice, the audiobook provides a sobering look into brutal sex trafficking crimes. Marno has great range and deftly manages the other characters’ personalities, with subtle changes in her voice. Through both voices, I felt I knew the characters well.

I also enjoyed the author’s smart descriptions of the Chapman’s home and their lives. The fact that many of their things are ruined is a great reflection on how their lives may also be wrecked. Bohjalian is also great at presenting different points of view and showing his characters’ weaknesses. I felt the dread of each of the characters, even the ones I didn’t like.

I listened to The Guest Room during my many walks this week and recommend it to listeners who like stories with characters who make bad decisions.

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Book Review: No Place Like Home by Rebecca Muddiman

No Place Like Home
by
Rebecca Muddiman

Rating:

Polly Cooke can’t wait to make her new house a home. She’s thirty-five and is starting a new chapter. As she walks home from the bus stop, she dreams of settling in for the night, but Polly is startled to see a shadow in the window of her house. Is someone inside?

And so begins Polly’s nightmare of moving into her dream house. With jumps between the recent past and the present, Polly narrates the details of her life. Her job is nothing special, but it’s a job. Her mother is in a home care center, with signs of dementia. And Polly is raw from a past relationship. This house is the perfect chance at a fresh start, if she can keep the past out of it, especially the man she sees watching her and suspects has been inside.

As this psychological thriller unfolds, the reader puts together a few pieces, but there are many questions. One of the things I enjoy about thrillers is watching the main character make foolish and reckless decisions. I kept saying to myself, “Polly, just call the police!” and “Close your drapes all the way—don’t peek out like that!”

Polly is so rattled by these events that she misses a lot of work and puts her job in jeopardy. And Polly’s mother seems to be declining from her daughter’s neglect. These two simmering situations add to the impending doom and the reader can only hope that Polly can take control. Secondary suspicious characters, like the nosy neighbor, the controlling nurse at the care center and former roommates raise more questions as to who’s behind Polly’s problems.

This is a fast-paced thriller with the usual twists and turns and a big scene at the finish. But what I enjoyed the most was a clever and unexpected double twist in the story. The author does a good job creating a situation with built-in suspense and turning it into an original story. Don’t expect a lot of character development. There’s just enough to support the plot and keep the story moving.

I enjoyed No Place Like Home. The title suggests what it’s about and the reader is treated to something a little more than that. I recommend this thriller to readers who are looking for a quick diversion.

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Book Talk – No Place Like Home by Rebecca Muddiman

Image: Pixabay

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom called Book Talk, home to quick previews of books that catch my eye.

I’m feeling a little guilty about not reading some of the NetGalley books I’ve received. This psychological thriller is one of them. I had a perfectly good plan to read it right away, but somehow No Place Like Home got lost on my Kindle, along with the other mess of books I have on there.

Here’s the book description:

“What would you do if you came home to find someone in your house?

This is the predicament Polly Cooke faces when she returns to her new home. The first weeks in the house had been idyllic, but soon Jacob, a local man, is watching her.

What does he want and why is he so obsessed with Polly?

In a situation where nothing is what it seems, you might end up regretting letting some people in.”

This is the kind of book that seizes on the reader’s need to be terrified. We all get a thrill from reading about someone else’s scary situations, right?

I have a few other books I’m going to read first, but I think I’m going to jump on this soon. At 234 pages, it looks like a quick read.

No Place Like Home was published in 2018. Check out these reviews. I’m going to wait in case they have spoilers!

Laurel-Rain Snow from Rainy Days and Mondays
Goodreads Reviews
Amazon Reviews

Have you already read No Place Like Home?

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Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

You
by
Caroline Kepnes

Rating:

Joe Goldberg is an average guy working in a bookstore in the East Village. In walks Guinevere Beck a beautiful aspiring writer. They flirt and Joe’s obsession begins. It’s not hard to find out more about the girl who goes as “Beck” because she’s all over social media and that’s how Joe gets his foot in.

You is an addicting story about a guy who seems pretty normal, loves books (he’s a bit of a book snob too), but will stop at nothing to get to the girl. Joe is a weird combination of likable and a little bit scary, a perfect character for a thriller.

And Beck is a mystery. Her public image on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is one thing, clever, cute, literary. But she has a reckless side that Joe wants to protect her from. He’s working people, but is she doing the same? A mix-in of ambitious, needy and maybe not-so-good friends makes Beck’s character even more interesting.

You is told from Joe’s perspective. Not talking to the reader, though. He’s talking to Beck. And the whole time he’s explaining to her what he’s all about.

I devoured this book. I don’t want to say too much because this is the kind of story you want to experience, one creepy moment at a time. You might wonder why I’m giving 5 stars to a book that might seem a little trashy when you start reading it. Read on and you’ll discover that the genius of the storytelling is that Joe’s character becomes almost completely knowable by the end. I say almost because there are plenty of issues to resolve at the end of You, explained, I hope, in the sequel, Hidden Bodies.

Anyone who likes to read will love Kepnes’s literary references because, you know, the story does revolve around a bookstore. And the music references are equally fun, especially the one that indirectly refers to the book’s title. It was only by chance that I caught it.

You is a Lifetime series and I’ve already started watching it. It’s equally addicting. I recommend the book to readers who like stories of obsession and complex characters.

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