The Force by Don Winslow

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"Why does everyone else get rich? The wiseguys, the dope dealers, the politicians? Why not us for a change? When is it our turn?"

My familiarity with author Don Winslow began with his novel, The Savages. That novel and its prequel, The Kings of Cool, featured a fast-paced, bare-knuckle prose that made for a quick and thrilling read. The way Winslow had me rooting for a group of drug dealers was remarkable, and I consider those books to be some of the best thrillers that I've ever read.

His 2015 novel, The Cartel, garnered critical and commercial acclaim as a sprawling epic about the drug war. It was quickly optioned for a film adaptation by Ridley Scott, and cemented Winslow's place as one of the top thriller authors writing today. When an advanced copy of Winslow's latest novel, The Force, made its way to my desk, I eagerly dived into the novel with high expectations.

Denny Malone is a king of sorts. As the leader of the exclusive NYPD task force, "Da Force", Denny has earned the reputation as being one of the best officers in the city. His men put their lives on the line each night, protecting their home from drugs, gangs, and violence. Denny's personal life has taken a backseat to his work, leaving him separated from his wife, away from his children, and frequenting the home of his drug-addicted mistress. Denny sees this as a necessary evil, all part of the Job.

Ironically, Denny's quest for justice has seen him precariously balance on the edge of cop and criminal. Simply put, Denny is a dirty cop. If putting a bad guy away involves stretching the truth at a trial, planting evidence, or even killing him instead of arresting him, that's fine by Denny. Within the expansive corruption of the justice system, Denny dutifully plays his part in keeping the wheels turning.

Denny takes things a step further when his team busts a notorious drug leader. They murder the criminal on the spot and keep a bit of his drugs for themselves. Why shouldn't the team financially benefit from this massive bust. They reason that if they don't profit from this situation, someone else will. But years of deceit and corruption finally catch up to Denny when the Feds begin to pressure him for info. Denny is caught between saving his own skin and protecting his team. "A man takes care of his family, end of story."

The Force is the best thriller that I've read this year. Winslow writes a startling portrait of a criminal justice system that mirrors the kind of crime operations it is supposed to destroy. At nearly 500 pages, The Force is not the quick read that Winslow gave in his earlier works. Instead, it is a detailed study of a man's transformation from good to bad that evolves slowly while constantly engaging. I was reminded of the epic scope of some of the great gangster films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. I marveled and the way Winslow explores the idea of justice and what it truly is. Cop thrillers aren't hard to come by, but The Force by Don Winslow is sure to be the best one that you'll read this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 27)





The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

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In the last few years, Amy Schumer has ascended into the upper echelons of celebrity. After a whirlwind break on the reality show Last Comic Standing, she went on to star in the acclaimed show Inside Amy Schumer and wrote and stared in the film Trainwreck. Amy is controversial, quick-witted, and was even named one of Barbara Walter's most fascinating people of the year. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about her.

As other comedians have done, Schumer populates her book with a collection of essays. While they all contain bits of her biting humor, I was surprised at how many of these essays tackle serious issues. She juxtaposes hilarious descriptions of one night stands and dates with other celebrities with the darker story of being in an abusive relationship. We learn that beneath the hardened persona that the public sees on stage lies a vulnerable introvert who has known her fair share of heartache.

I went into The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo looking for laughs, but I came out of it with a deeper appreciation of Amy Schumer as a person. She writes of the moment she learned of two women who were shot to death at a screening of her film Trainwreck. When she says that she thinks about these women often and is determined that their memory never dies, I believe her. I admire that the tragedy inspired her to take action as an advocate against gun violence and as a voice for women's rights. The essay format naturally can be a bit disjointed, and this book is no different. Still, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo showcases Shumer's talent as an entertainer and reveals a side of her that makes the book worth reading.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 26)

You'll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron

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"I always knew one day she'd come home."

You'll Never Know, Dear sees three generations of women dealing with a haunting past. Forty years ago, young Lissie was playing in the yard with her sister Janey. The two girls occupied themselves with handmade dolls that their mother modeled after their likeness. Lis became distracted by a dog and left her sister to play alone. That was the last time anyone ever saw little Janey.

Fast forward to present day. Miss Sorrel, the girls' mother, never recovered from Janey's disappearance. Clouded in grief, she gave up on creating porcelain dolls with her friend Evelyn, but she never gave up hope that she would see her daughter again. Each year, Miss Sorrel posts an add in the paper searching for the doll that disappeared with Janey. Each year, the ad goes unanswered. But this year is different. This year, the doll has come home.

Vanessa is in the midst of deep sleep when she's suddenly awakened. For years, she has studied the way people dream. She seeks a way to control actions in dreams and help people who suffer from nightmares and PTSD. She is awakened with the news of a terrible accident involving her mother and grandmother, Lis and Miss Sorrel. An explosion in Sorrel's kiln, a tool that sat mostly unused, sent the two women to the hospital and caused considerable damage to Miss Sorrel's treasured doll collection. When Vanessa arrives at her grandmother's home, she learns that Janey's long lost doll recently resurfaced. The very next day, the explosion happened. Could the doll really belong to Janey? After all these years, why did it surface now?

One glance at the haunting cover of this novel was all it took to capture my attention. From the very start, You'll Never Know, Dear, captured my attention and held on to the very end. There is a timelessness to Ephron's writing that makes for an almost enchanting read. While seasoned mystery readers will probably see the ending coming, it is the nuanced characters and vivid setting that make this a worthy read. With an unsolved mystery, strong female characters, and a few creepy dolls thrown in for good measure, You'll Never Know, Dear is everything I needed in a summer read. The book is marketed as "women's fiction", but make no mistake, this suspenseful novel will have men and women reading with fervor into all hours of the night.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 25)




Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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"No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free."

There are countless works of fiction that explore America's torrid past with slavery. Last year alone saw several works about the subject. Despite the plethora of study and writings (both fiction and non-fiction), there are inevitably pieces of the history that remain unexplored. To be fair, Americans seem to have a difficult time thinking about the despicable institution that flourished during the founding of our country. Still, no work that I've read thus far has truly captured the scope and lasting effects of slavery.

Enter Yaa Gyasi and her remarkable debut novel Homegoing. At just 26, Gyasi has written a novel that eloquently captures the horror and repercussions of slavery. The novel begins with the story of two half-sisters born in Ghana during the 1700's. Efia catches the eye of British governor James Collins who swiftly exchanges money with the family for her hand in marriage. He takes her to his castle where she lives a life of comfort and luxury.

At this same time, Efia's half-sister Esi is imprisoned in the dungeon of that very castle. She lives in the inhumanely cramped and dirty quarters among hundreds of others from her village who are awaiting transport to the New World. Once there, they will be sold to live the remainder of their lives as slaves. Immediately the juxtaposition of the two sisters is established. As the novel progresses, chapters alternate between the two sister's offspring in a chilling and enlightening portrait of concurrent lives spanning all the way to present day.

I was astounded by the depth and efficiency of Homegoing. The novel is only about 300 pages, but Gyasi manages to fill it with the emotional complexity and historical scope of a much larger work. Each chapter achieves the feat of introducing a new character who is instantly engaging. Mentions and appearances of previous characters help to put a focus on the large family tree that is established. Gyasi effortlessly adapts her style to adhere to each time period and character in a way that offers a fresh voice to the characters while still forming a cohesive whole. Simply put, this is a novel that you have to read for yourself. It defies an adequate description. Rather, you have to experience the work for yourself to truly grasp the brilliance that it contains.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 24)

Lucy Loves Sherman by Catherine Bailey

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I'm back this week with another review for a fantastic new children's book. Lucy Loves Sherman, written by Catherine Bailey with vibrant illustrations by Meg Walters, is a love story of sorts. Our heroine, the young Lucy immediately falls in love with Sherman. She is certain the two will become best friends. The only problem. . . Sherman is a Lobster!

The fateful meeting occurs at the local fish market. Lucy is visiting with her Nana when she eyes the large crustacean. She begs Nana to allow her to take Sherman home with them. Lucy argues that the 18 pound lobster would be the perfect pet. "No shedding! No barking! No chewing on the furniture!" Naturally, Nana refuses. That's when things take a turn for the worse.

The chef from a local restaurant quickly purchases Sherman with the intent of featuring him as a special meal. The resourceful Lucy springs into action. When sabotage and deceit fail her, Lucy turns to peaceful and informative activism to save her strange friend.

Lucy Loves Sherman is a delightful tale of the unlikely friendship of a girl and a lobster and the power of celebrating friendship despite differences. Bailey's book teaches that anything is possible if you believe that it can be done. The resolution sees Lucy teaching her town about how important Sherman is. She uses the facts about him and her love for him to convince the town to rally behind his release. Walters fun illustrations bring the story to life with a colorful flair. Lucy Loves Sherman is sure to entertain your little ones and inspire them to appreciate all the creatures that fill their world.

For more information, visit the publisher's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 23)

Chaos by Patricia Cornwell

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I've recently jumped back into Patricia Cornwell's famed Kay Scarpetta series. My love/hate relationship with the main character caused me to shelf the series for some time, but I couldn't stay away for long. For my money, no one writes with the thrilling reality that Cornwell does. Given my enjoyment of the past couple novels, I came into this latest one with high expectations.

This 24th installment begins with Scarpetta and her FBI agent husband Benton attempting to have dinner at the exclusive Harvard University club. Scarpetta is preparing to give a lecture to some students there. All too often, the couple's meals are interrupted by their work, and this occasion is no different. They both receive calls about a mysterious death on the campus. A female biker has been found dead of an apparent lightning strike. Immediately, something seems off. How could a woman be killed by lightning on such a clear night?

The situation is compounded by a string of mysterious texts from a figure called Tailend Charlie. Scarpetta receives these odd poems that contain personal details that only someone close to her would know. As the details of these messages begin to coincide with her ongoing investigation, Scarpetta's paranoia reaches a peak. All evidence has her believing that the nefarious serial-killer Carie Grethen, who has been at large for the last couple of novels, is somehow connected to the murder.

Like the previous novel, Depraved Heart, Chaos takes place over a short period of time and focuses mostly on Scarpetta's inner dialogue. In the words of Elvis Presley, "A little less conversation, a little more action" could have gone a long way in helping the pace of most of the early portions of this book. Scarpetta's inward paranoia was not enough to propel the beginning of the story. Fortunately, the action increased as the investigation progressed. It was great to see Scarpetta be a little more hands on with examining the body and crime scene. This is what captured my imagination in the early books, and it was nice to see Cornwell return to these elements. The narrative arc that began in Flesh and Blood comes to a satisfying, but slightly too convenient, conclusion in this story. With the promising progression of the last three novels, I'm excited to see how Cornwell evolves her character next.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 22)

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