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The Returned

The Returned
Jason Mott

The Bible talks about a Rapture, where some people are suddenly taken to Heaven while others are left behind. But what if the opppsite happened- what if the dead started randomly returning? Not as ghosts or zombies, but the same way (and age) they were before they died?
Harold and Lucille lost their son Jacob in a drowning accident decades ago, and they have lomg since resigned themselves to being childless in their old age. When Jacob returns to them as a 7 year old boy, he upends not their lives, their marriage, and their assumptions about the growing global phenomena of “the Returned.” While some people welcome their lost loved ones with open arms, others view them with suspicion or even hatred. The government, faced with a sudden population boom, does what governments generally do, and forces the Returned into internment camps. When the town where Harold and Lucille live turns into one big camp, Harold opts to move into the camp with Jason. Lucille does what she can for Returned who have managed to elude capture. In the camp, Harold forms an odd friendship with Agent Bellamy, a government liason running the camp. Its clear Bellamy sees himself as just carrying out orders but doing what he can to make life bearable for the Returned.
Inevitably this story builds to a confrontation between the government, the faction known as the “True Living”, and the Returned, with Harold, Lucille and Jacob right in the center of it. Its pretty much what you would expect, given the sudden apparance of a population that may or may not be fully human who are treated as second class citizens, and the clash between those who want to accept them and those who want to eliminate them.  But I didn’t find it particularly satifying.

I was drawn to The Returned because the premise is fascinating, but Mott leaves more questions than answers. Why are people returning? Is everyone coming back, or just (it seems) those who died in the last 60 years or so? Why do some people return to their homes while others show up halfway around the globe? Will the Returned stay or all disappear just like they appeared?
In the end, The Returned was what I think of as a “small story”- one in which not much action happens, when people don’t go anywhere different or do anything notable but life just unfolds. Sometimes a small story is the best story, because it provides so much opportunity for character development. Unfortunately, I neber felt like these characters reached their full potential. The strongest characters were the mismstched pair of Harold and Agent Bellamy. Its clear Harold and Lucille had a strong, loving relationship; but they spend most of the book separated. Jacob, the boy at the center of it all, remains as much a mystery at the end of the book as he was when he first reappeared.
I guess ultimately I’m not disappointed the book wasn’t good; it was good- it had a very creative premise and a variety of interesting characters. I’m disappointed that the book wasn’t great; because it could’ve been, but it wasn’t quite. I hope Mott writes another book, because I’d like to see what else he can do.

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You might like: The Leftovers, Perotta. The Time Travelers wife, Niffinger.

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The Uninvited

The Uninvited
Liz Jensen

Hesketh is a man with a background in anthropology and an affinity for languages. He works for a company that investigates corporate fraud. He also has Aspergers syndrome and works hard to interpret interpersonal relationships. Folding complicated origami figures is his hobby, and he frequently visualizes folding figures to calm himself. He recently ended a relationship with a woman named Kaitlin, but what he seems to miss most is being the father figure for her son Freddy.
Hesketh is traveling around the globe investigating a series of whistleblowing cases that seem oddly similar. After exposing fraud in their companies, each whistleblower attempts suicide. As he digs deeper, Hesketh uncovers other similarities, like an intense craving for salt, and reports involving fairies, djinn, and other mythical creatures in different cultures.
While Hesketh tried to piece together the mystery of the reluctant whistleblowers,  a strange phenomena is happening around the world: previously well-behaved children are killing their family members, with no apparent provocation and no remorse. Hesketh feels like the situations must somehow be connected. Can he find out what is going on before its too late? Will Freddy be lost to the madness? Is there anything anyone can do?

I literally read the first 3 chapters of this book one day, and then read the rest in one sitting. It was chilling but so well written, and I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next.
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Rasputin’s Shadow

Rasputin’s Shadow
Raymond Khoury.

I do love a good spy novel, and Khoury is one of the best out there! I’ve read all of his books. I recall his past novels as being along the lines of  cracking codes, solving puzzles, and ancient conspiracy theories. This one was a little less puzzle and more straight spycraft: double agents, top secret reports, crime syndicates and blackmail- all the good stuff!

Instead of harking back to the mysteries of the ancients, Rasputins Shadow visits the recent past: Russia in the early 1900s, right before the royal family was killed in the Revolution. A fictional sidekick of Rasputin leaves diaries that are later discovered by his grandson, Solokov. The diaries tell the grandson how to develop a very dangerous technology. Cue the spies, defectors, Korean gangs, and car chases.

The key to the story (both past and present) is a dangerous weaponized technology. I don’t want to give away what it is, but I do wish it had been explained a little more a little earlier in the book. Copious hints were dropped, but I had to basically re-read the historical portions after the details were made more clear.

Russians have traditionally been our primary nemesis in spy novels. After the end of the Cold War, there was an increase in other antagonists: Middle Eastern and Chinese, primarily. Its interesting to me that suddenly spy novels are focusing on Russia again.

You might like: Ghost Man, Hobbs. Romanov Cross, Marsello. Amber Room, Berry. also Rollins and Kuzneski.

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Dollface

Dollface
Renee Rosen

Vera wants to live the glamorous life of a flapper in Roaring 20s Chicago. She loves clothes, dancing, drinking and most of all- handsome, dangerous men. But the truth is, Vera is a poor Jewish girl working two jobs just to make ends meet. She lives with her best friend Evelyn in a run-down boarding house and skips meals because she can’t afford to eat. At night in speakeasies, Vera looks good enough to get the nickname “Dollface” but the truth is, her stockings are painted on.
Vera thinks she’s incredibly lucky when she starts dating not one but two handsome men. Shep takes her on expensive dates, buys her gifts, and treats her well. Tony disappears for days at a time but he and Vera always reconnect with sizzling chemistry. Vera feels less lucky when she discovers that both of her lovers are gangsters- not only that, but they belong to rival gangs. At first, in horror, she breaks up with both of them. But she misses the romance as well as the fun times.
Vera has to find out the hard way that there is a dark side to the glamorous life, especially when you’re funding it with a bootlegger’s purse. Vera ends up paying a far higher price than she ever thought she would for loving her two gangsters.

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You might like: Vixen, Ingenue and Diva by Jillian Larkin

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The Last First Day

The Last First Day
Carrie Brown

The Last First Day is a love story. Not a story about new love, or falling in love, but about what love looks like over a lifetime.
Ruth and Peter are in their 80s. Peter has spent decades as the headmaster at the Derry School for boys. Ruth has never had her own career but was proud to be the headmaster’s wife- offering hospitality to the faculty, comfort to sick students, and generally mothering the boys. Now, Ruth is looking to the future with apprehension and the past with regret. The one thing she is sure of is the love she and Peter have built over the years.

Then, the book does flash back to Ruth and Peter when they first met. Their history sheds more light on their choices and regrets. It also makes helps explain why their love has been so lasting.

The love story of this book is beautiful. Our culture mostly focuses on falling in love, and not what it takes to stay in love- or what love looks like when its old and grey. For that alone, I would recommend this book.
In addition, the writing in this book is FANTASTIC. Brown uses very vivid descriptions that make scenes leap off the page. She uses words judiciously- a single detail tells a whole scene. I would read this book again (and I’m sure I will) for the writing alone.

Walk into any bookstore and love stories are a dime a dozen. But a book like this is a rare and pleasing find. No question its making the list of my Top 10 novels this year.

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You might like: The Notebook, N. Sparks. Water For Elephants,  S. Gruen. Three Stages of Amazement, C. Edgarian.

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Grim Company

Grim Company
Luke Scull

Working in a bookstore, I am often asked “I just finished GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones books.. what do I read now?” I have two go-to answers: Brent Weeks and Mark Lawrence. But I might just have a new author to add to the pile, and that is Luke Scull.
The cover of The Grim Company caught my eye first, so I picked it up and opened it at random. I don’t remember what scene I read, but two pages was enough to convice me I needed to read the book.

Centuries ago, the mages fought the gods- and won. The 13 old ones were vanquished and the mages (in typical victor form) promptly began to wage war on one another. By the time of The Grim Company, the land is divided among powerful and antagonistic magelords. Dorminia is ruled by a particularly despotic wizard named Salazar. Currently the greatest threat to his kingdom is the White Lady who rules Thelassa.
The Grim Company is notable for having several narrators on all sides of the conflict. Cole is a young member of a rebal band (the Shard) in Dorminica. He imagines himself a hero thanks to his magic blade- if only he didn’t keep losing said blade thanks to his lack of fighting prowess. Cole also dreams of winning over his fellow rebel Sasha, but she proves a smart warrior in her own right. Brodar Kayne is a battle-hardened Highlander. Along with his compatriot Jerek aka The Wolf, he fights to overthrow Salazar and ends up adventuring with Cole. There are ship battles,  mine explosions and sword-fights aplently.
Eremul is a wizard who survived Salazar’s culling of magic-users at the price of his legs. He has played both sides for so long that, given the chance to strike a decisive blow, he is no longer sure where his loyalties lie. Barandas is the chief of Salazar’s Augmentors, an elite guard given magic weapons and protection.  Yllandris is a female mage who serves one of the highland warlords but dreams of becoming his queen.

The Grim Company first drew me in with its snarky writing. Then the characters kept me turning the pages. None of them are perfect, but all of them are somehow relatable. Even Barandas (solidly in the camp of bad guys) is a man who loves his wife and wants to serve his country.
Of course, battles and adventures abound. Scull takes a turn into horror with zombies, tentacled killers, and horrible dragons. There is mining magic from the corpses of the gods. There are old scores settled among highlanders. Feasts, looting and treachery abound. In short, this is a good fanatasy book and a solid beginning.

I liked the depth of the characters, and how none of them were as good as they saw themselves- or as bad as others saw them. I liked the strong female characters (in every role from rebel to sorceress to queen.) I liked the fast paced action. I could’ve used a little more clarification on some of the backstory, but you don’t develop an entire mythos in one book.

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In short, thank goodness this book is being sold as the first of a trilogy because I want to read more! I feel like this author could be the next  Brent Weeks or Mark Lawrence- the next heir to the line of GRR Martin- and I really hope he doesn’t disappoint.

You might like: (do I really need to say it at this point?!) GRR Martin. Brent Weeks. Mark Lawrence.

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Police

Police
Jo Nesbo

At the end of Nesbo’s last book, Phantom,  a lot of us thought Harry Hole was dead. Since Police is being marketed with the tagline “a new Harry Hole novel”, I don’t think its too much of a spoiler to reveal that Hole is still alive… at least when Police starts.

There is a killer on the loose in Norway, and he seems to be targeting police officers. Is his motive revenge, hatred, or even love? The politicking at police headquarters impedes rather than advances the case. A few who have worked with Harry Hole try to form their own task force and solve the crimes like he would. But can they do it without him?
This novel is typical of all the Nesbo has written in the Harry Hole series; that is to say, excellent. Psychological analysis, modern forensics, and old-fashioned beat cop detecting all play a role in solving the case.  The case takes unexpected twists and turns that keep you guessing (and turing pages) up until the end. A story arc involving the corrupt chief of police and his henchman gets wrapped up. But is it as good if there is no Harry Hole? You have to read the book to decide.

SPOIlER ALERT
My feeling is that this just might be the final Harry Hole book (altho Nesbo has fooled us before.) If, in fact, it is- I’m not disappointed with this farewell to the character. For once he might have a book where he doesn’t disappear into an alcoholic drinking binge/blackout. For once he might get to be happy with his long-time off-and-on girlfriend Rakel and her son Oleg. I’m only disappointed because I never wanted to say goodbye to Harry. Oh, I know, characters are usually better if they say goodbye before we are quite done with them. But 9 Nesbo books (in English) over the last few years have made me rather attached to Harry Hole. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest fictional detectives of the last 20 years.

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Other characters in the running for the best detective of the last 20 yeats: the fictional Pendergast of Preston and Child. the fictional House of TV. the fictional Lincoln Ryhme of J. Deaver. the fictional Temperance Brennan of K. Reichs. the fictional Sherlock of the BBC.