Tag Archives: debut novel

Cruel Summer

The Summer We Lost Her: A Novel by Tish Cohen (Gallery Books, $16.99, 352 pages)

Tish Cohen has knocked it out of the park with The Summer We Lost Her.

An aspiring Olympian and dreamer, Elise – who gets “oh, so close” to her dream after years of dedications and near misses – is confronted with the brutal realities of her future and past. She has decisions to make. Especially in light of the birth of her daughter, Gracie.

Elise’s lawyer husband, Matt – the dutiful father and conventionalist, must also reconcile his vision of reality and the myths that catch up with him regarding his past, and the grandfather he loves. When confronted with the presence of his first love, Cass, and the psychological connections of his past, he has decisions to make.

In Summer, Gracie disappears at a lake community in northern New York state. There is no greater evil than this, and there is no greater reckoning than what transpires in the face of such an event. And a reckoning there is. But as the story unfolds the humanity of the characters is revealed in such an understated way, it is hard to root for or against anyone. And so what hangs in the balance until the final pages of the story is totally satisfying.

The couple wrestles with the decision to sell their property near Lake Placid, New York, amidst the loss of their daughter. They must also deal with Elise’s quest for excellence, the appearance of Matt’s first love, revelations of Matt’s grandfather’s questionable practices, and the reappearance of Elise’s mercurial father.

It is no surprise that the rights to the tale have already been claimed for a TV mini-series.

The ending could go in multiple directions. Part of me says Cohen should have written a Great Expectations, with two different endings and let the reader decide. But, short of that, it is hard to find fault with this extremely satisfying novel.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

This novel was released on June 4, 2019. A review copy was received from the publisher.

Tish Cohen’s excellent debut novel was The Truth About Delilah Blue (2010).

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, Bob Dylan, and love.

Advance praise for The Summer We Lost Her (click on the image to see a larger version):

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When the Men Were Gone

when the men were gone

When the Men Were Gone: A Novel by Marjorie Herrera Lewis (William Morrow, $26.99/$15.99, 240 pages)

When the Men Were Gone, based on a true story, is Marjorie Herrera Lewis’ debut novel about Tylene Wilson, an assistant principal at a Texas high school who takes over the school’s football team during World War II, when all of the men are either at war or returning home dead.

Wilson has grown up an avid fan and shares many childhood memories with her father, but when she steps up to make sure the boys get one last chance to play football before the war comes calling, she is seen in a less than favorable light by many of the locals.  Her heroic gesture is met more with scorn than gratitude, because “everybody knows” that coaching football in Texas is clearly a man’s job.

When Wilson finally clears the imminent hurdles with her principal and the school board, the team takes the field for its first game against a powerhouse program in front of a full house with reporters from hours away descending upon Brownwood, Texas.

It turns out that Wilson does know what she’s doing, and Lewis tells both an inspiring and enjoyable story.  She does well to avoid too much commentary and simply leads the reader through the thoughts and actions of the characters, bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The book, however, is arguably a bit too lean at less than 250 pages.  Its primary drawback is that a little more meat at times could have made for a better, more complete story.  This does not seem to have been the goal for Lewis, but more could have been done to shore up the characters and plot.

Lewis herself covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and endured some taunting from some insiders before winning them over.  She went on to join the Texas Wesleyan University football staff.  Though not autobiographical, Lewis apparently relied upon her knowledge and personal experiences to lend credibility to the inspiring account.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  When the Men Were Gone will be released in hardbound and trade paper versions on October 2, 2018.

Dave Moyer is the Superintendent of Schools for the Elmhurst Unit District 205 public school district, located just north of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

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Three for the Read

The Dress in the Window: A Novel by Sofia Grant (William Morrow, $15.99, 368 pages)

dress in the window front

The time is post-World War II and the location is a rundown mill town outside Philadelphia.  Three brave ladies are struggling to make ends meet.  Sisters Jeanne and Peggy are victims of the war – Jeanne has lost her fiance and Peggy is a widow with a small child.  They live with Peggy’s mother-in-law in a bare bones existence eking out a living designing and sewing outfits for the more well-heeled ladies of the town.

Readers are treated to insights about the fabrics being fashioned into unique garments designed by Jeanne and crafted by Peggy.  The novel covers several years following the war’s end as the sisters work to better their lives and resolve their personal issues.  The chapters are laid out from the various character’s perspectives which make for a well rounded tale.

dress in the window back

The book is billed as a debut effort by Sonia Grant.  However, a bit of sleuthing by the reader – could it be a pseudonym? – will put that notion to rest.

Well recommended.

A Season to Lie: A Detective Gemma Monroe Mystery by Emily Littlejohn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 290 pages)

a season to lie

Gemma Monroe is a police officer who also happens to be a new mother.  Gemma narrates her experiences in Cedar Valley, Colorado during the snowy month of February.  The discovery of a frozen corpse at the local private high school begins a very baffling search for the murderer.

Author Littlejohn crafts a fascinating story of small town secrets that may keep her readers from putting down the book until the very last pages.  Her smooth writing is enchanting and some paragraphs could be poetry.  This is a follow-up Gemma Monroe mystery.  The first was Inherit the Bones.  Let’s hope another installment will follow in the not-too-distant future.

Highly recommended.

The Trust: A Novel by Ronald H. Balson (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 356 pages)

the trust

This time the narrator is Liam Taggart, a private investigator in Chicago, Illinois.  Liam left Northern Ireland 16 years ago after some messy business that involved politics and the CIA.  A reader who knows very little about Irish politics, AKA, this reviewer, will be fascinated by the fierce loyalties and grudges that span decades – no, even centuries, in this divided country.

Liam’s uncle Fergus has died and left explicit instructions with his attorney regarding the disposition of his estate.  There is a secret trust and Liam is named the sole trustee.  It’s a daunting task for Liam to unravel the mystery behind Fergus Taggart’s life and death.  Author Balson is a trial attorney based in the Windy City who makes good use of his legal knowledge and experience in spinning an international novel worthy of the elegant dust jacket.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

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White or red?

White with Fish, Red with Murder: A Frank Swiver Novel by Harley Mazuk (Driven Press, $15.99, 372 pages)

white with fish

White with Fish, Red with Murder is a debut work by Harley Mazuk.  This is a mystery novel with some clever locations, quirky characters, and pitch perfect 1940s dialogue.  The narrator, Frank Swiver, is a private detective in San Francisco – circa 1948, who is eager for a paying client.  As luck would have it, Frank’s interest in wine is the ticket to a job!  Retired General Lloyd F. Thursby has planned an excursion on his private rail car with wine tasting as the entertainment.

“Hey, sweetheart.  Sorry I was late.  You look like a million bucks, you know?”

The general has an ulterior motive.  His good friend Rusty O’Callaghan was murdered and the general wants Swiver to finger the guilty party as the train wends its way from Oakland, CA to the wine country.  Swiver, under cover as a writer, brings along his trusty secretary/girlfriend, Vera, ostensibly as his date; but actually Vera is working with Swiver.  The party becomes complicated as each of the invitees boards the train.  The most notable guest, as far as Swiver and Vera are concerned, is Rusty’s widow, Cici O’Callaghan.  And, to make matters more complicated, Swiver and Cici have a shared romantic past.

“Look kid, I know you’re sore at me.  But the surest way to get you out of here is to find the real killer…”

Author Harley Mazuk has done his homework.  The cast of characters is straight out of a black and white mystery movie ala George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.  Even their names are indicative of the era.  And the language fits the period:  “A dame who may have been on the make perched at the other end (of the bar).”

Mazuk’s attention to detail is remarkable.  Of course it helps that this reviewer’s all-time favorite movie is the 1944 classic, Laura, making me a suitable critic of these matters.  And, I think mystery readers of all ages will be sure to enjoy the train trip and ensuing action to its conclusion.

The only slight detraction lies with the book’s cover art.  Yes, the story could be considered to be of the noir genre; however, the color and placement of the author’s name is far too dark.  Mazuk deserves better billing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

“A delicious throwback to the  PI stories of Hammett and Chandler when all the dames had shapely gams.”  Alan Orloff, author of Running From the Past.

 

 

 

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Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

the-futures

One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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The Long and Twisting Road

i-let-you-go

I Let You Go: A Novel by Clare Mackintosh (Berkley, $26.00, 384 pages; Penguin Publishing, $16.00, 400 pages)

British author Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel, I Let You Go, works at many levels.  For those who enjoy intrigue there are multiple twists and turns right up to the end.  Solid writing and character development should satisfy most readers who are simply interested in a good story.

In this story, a little boy named Jacob is tragically killed in a hit and run incident, and a persistent law enforcement officer, Kate, will not let the case go.  Jenna Gray seeks refuge in a remote tourist spot named Penfach.  She is ultimately apprehended and charged with the murder, but, from the start, things are never what they seem.  Surprises abound throughout.

Roy, Kate’s partner and superior, sorts through the complex feelings he has for her as he struggles with the realities of his marriage and family.  Jenna attempts to learn to trust again after a lifetime of heartache.  Strangers regularly indulge in random acts of kindness.  And still, evil lurks and must eventually be conquered.

Mackintosh chooses to consistently shift points of view and tells the story in both the third person and first person and through the eyes of multiple characters.  This creates some choppiness in the narrative that would likely not be evident in a second or third novel, or coming from a more experienced novelist. Most readers should, however, be able to work through this without it affecting their enjoyment of what is otherwise a good suspense story.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

I Let You Go is available in both hardbound and trade paperback editions.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

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Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

i-liked-my-life-amazon

I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

i-liked-my-life-back

Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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